As Good As It Gets tells the story of Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), an abrasive man with OCD who transforms into a better human in the process of wooing a local waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) and helping his gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear).
The movie grossed $148 million at the US box office and garnered Oscars and Golden Globes for Nicholson and Hunt.
Interestingly though, if you read an old draft of the script penned by Mark Andrus before James L Brooks became involved, the outcome of the movie probably would’ve been completely different.
I’d be surprised if Jack Nicholson would’ve agreed to play Melvin without insisting on major rewrites. I do think however that Greg Kinnear and several other actors would’ve eagerly chomped at the bit to play Simon.
The old draft which I read (and I want to thank SMW reader James for sending it my way, much appreciated) seemed to tell two different stories: one about Melvin and one about Simon.
Even though it may’ve been Andrus’s intention for Melvin to be the starring character, it didn’t read that way. At least to me.
Simon’s story, (a drama showing his path from self-loathing to self-acceptance) always seemed to overshadow Melvin’s (a pseduo-romantic comedy showing his transformation from a jerk to a human being).
The movie expanded upon the romantic comedy elements and pared down a lot of Simon’s scenes, resulting in a more cohesive and commercially viable script. (It also included one of the best rewatchable moments in movie history.)
If you can track down this old draft, dated May 1992, you definitely should, because comparing it to the final movie version is a screenwriting education in and of itself.
If your script has a genre-identity crisis, studying the two versions of As Good As It Gets will help you learn how to focus on certain story elements while excising others. It will also teach you a lot more as you’ll see from the screenwriting tips below:
Screenwriting Tip #1: Determine whose story you’re telling
Like I said earlier, the screenplay draft I read seemed to vacillate between making Melvin’s or Simon’s story the dominant one. Of course, you can write a movie with two heroes, but it’s much easier to write a screenplay which focuses on the emotional/physical journey of just one.
There’s a reason the Lord of the Rings focused primarily on Frodo even though it related the story of an entire fellowship.
For one thing, having two major characters usually ends up diluting the emotional investment of script readers and audience members. For another thing, by trying to tell the stories of two different people, you may end up with a hybrid movie which doesn’t really know what it is.
In the case of As Good As It Gets, at one point I felt I was reading an unusual romantic comedy…which was often interrupted by tonally incongruous scenes focusing on Simon’s self-loathing and suicidal tendencies (more on tonal consistency in screenwriting tip #6).
By trying to combine both stories into one neat package, justice was done to neither. (It also would’ve been extremely difficult for the sales team to market this hybrid movie.)
The real issue here though is that it appeared Andrus was really trying to tell Melvin’s story–and Simon’s was supposed to be a subplot.
I didn’t actually count the number of scenes and lines dedicated to Simon, but it sure felt like there was a lot of screenplay real estate used to showcase Simon’s transformation.
This confused me because I started reading the script with the impression that Melvin, not Simon, was the main character.
When you’re evaluating your screenplay, ask yourself “who is the hero of my story?” That answer should come pretty quickly. Now, the second question, the trickier question is, “have I written a script which shows that my hero is in fact the hero?”
Typically, the first scene in your movie will begin with the starring character (and in some cases with the villain), but it’s unusual to begin a script with a character who’s going to be relegated to subplot status.
To name a few:
Your hero will also be in the most number of scenes and will have the most number of lines. Screenplay formatting software like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter has a tool which can help you detect if this is, indeed, the case.
Using such tools is especially helpful if you’ve written an amazing secondary character who steals a lot of the limelight in the scenes he’s in.
You’ve got to be careful that you didn’t get so enamored by him that you’ve let him steal the entire movie. You can also count the number of scenes which take place at your hero’s home and workplace.
Their proportion compared to your other scene locations is another clue that your hero is in fact the hero of your screenplay draft.
Finally, you also want to make sure that your hero participates in the climax–and that the climax revolves around his story not a secondary character’s. In the screenplay draft of As Good As It Gets that I read, the climax seemed to focus on Simon’s reconciliation with his parents.
He knocks on their door, but they refuse to open it. After Simon leaves, Melvin knocks on their door and gives them a piece of his mind. (For the specifics of that scene, skip to screenwriting tip #11). Later on, we’re told that Melvin and Simon have driven to Melvin’s son’s house and watched Melvin’s grandson play in the yard.
Creepiness aside, that’s a scene that really should’ve been shown, not told. Furthermore, it should’ve been the focus of the climax. Through his friendship with Simon and his pursuit of Carol, Melvin has turned into a better person who now has the courage to seek out his own family and reconnect.
Do you see the difference?
That’s not to say that Simon’s failed reconciliation with his parents can’t play a role in the screenplay. It just needed to be pared down–the way it was in the movie.
Screenwriting Tip #2: Reveal character through reaction
Now that you’ve determined who your hero really is, how do you introduce him? The screenplay draft of As Good As It Gets began in much the same way as the movie, with Melvin trying to con Simon’s dog, Verdell, an adorable yet ugly Brussels Griffon, to take a ride in his apartment building’s elevator. When that fails, Melvin stuffs the dog down the garbage chute.
The movie pretty much adhered to this scene with one major difference: it didn’t begin with Melvin and Verdell right away. First it showed an old woman opening her door. She’s so happy; it’s tulip season. Suddenly, her expression sours, and she closes her door rather abruptly.
Because she spotted Melvin.
This was a great way to introduce Melvin before we actually see him because it whets our curiosity. “Who or what caused this turnaround in the old lady?” we wonder, now primed to discover Melvin in all his abrasive glory.
Screenwriting Tip #3: If you choose interesting, go all the way
There’s a lot of talk in screenwriting circles about making heroes likeable. Likeable heroes, the reasoning goes, are appealing to audiences. But that isn’t exactly true. Interesting characters are also appealing, albeit for different reasons.
If your hero, like Melvin, is interesting because of some undesirable quality, don’t undercut your presentation of him by trying to make him more likeable. In trying to please everyone, you’ll please no one.
If you’re trying to show how your character transforms from A to Z, you’ve also shot yourself in the foot. It’s not much of a transformation if your hero was halfway to Z when the movie begins.
In the screenplay draft I read, while Melvin was shown as abrasive, all of a sudden, he’d be presented as someone who was socially awkward, but still fairly normal. At Carol’s restaurant, he’s not so obsessive about his regular table, and he didn’t say rude things to its patrons in order to get them to vacate it.
Simon’s art dealer, Frank, inexplicably invites Melvin to his gallery to see Simon’s work. Even more inexplicably, Melvin agrees. When he does arrive, he cordially shakes hands with both Frank and Frank’s assistant. Melvin even buys one of Simon’s paintings!
Do these actions jive with Melvin stuffing Simon’s dog down the trash chute? Or with Melvin’s reaction when Simon confronts him?
I found Verdell, Mr Udall.
So I can rest easy then?
Melvin walks back into the apartment and is about to close the door when Simon has another burst of bravery.
Did you…do something to him?
Do you know I work at home?
I wouldn’t have bothered you if it weren’t important.
I work six days a week, nine hours a day, fifty-one weeks a year. My work is important. Your dog isn’t.
Thankfully, in the movie, all the scenes which undermined Melvin’s credibility as a lost case of humanity are removed.
Additionally, dialogue which showcased his abrasiveness was added. In fact, in the movie, the screenplay excerpt above was extended to include this choice Melvin Udall insult:
Well, I work all the time. So never, never again interrupt me. Okay? I mean, never. Not thirty years from now…not if there’s a fire. Not even if you hear a thud from inside my home and a week later there’s a smell from in there that can only come from a decaying body, and you have to hold a hanky against your face because the stench is so thick you think you’re going to faint, even then don’t come knocking. Or, if it’s election night, and you’re excited and want to celebrate because some fudge-packer you dated has been elected the first queer President of the United States…and he’s going to put you up in Camp David and you just want to share the moment with someone…don’t knock…not on this door. Not for anything. Got me, sweetheart?
If you’re still worried that you might alienate your audience with an unlikeable character, watch the trailer for the movie, where Melvin’s nastiness becomes a selling point:
Screenwriting Tip #4: Fewer characters are better
For the most part, the fewer characters in your script, the stronger it is. By introducing fewer characters to your reader, you decrease the odds she’ll get confused in the middle of your script. With the exception of boredom, confusion is the worst possible reaction for her to have.
Secondly, each time you introduce a character and it seems like he’s going to pop up again in your script, your reader makes an emotional investment in him. If he never does show up again, you needlessly wasted your reader’s emotions, which usually leads towards a lukewarm reception to the script as a whole.
Finally, instead of populating your script with wafer-thin stereotypes, by doubling characters’ roles and increasing their scenes, you have more opportunities to create nuanced characters worth caring about.
In the 1992 screenplay draft of As Good As It Gets, several of Simon’s friends make appearances in the beginning of the movie…but become ghosts by the film’s end.
Take these two, Gordon and Barry. They visit Simon when he returns to his apartment after his accident, but after that, they never make a reappearance:
God, its’ good to have you out of that hospital!
Forty days and forty nights…Christ and me.
Baby, you have no idea!
And Barry flamboyantly leans down and kisses Simon on a patch of cheek that isn’t marred.
Let’s get you out of that thing. Sit you down.
Simon glances up at Frank, who seems to know what Simon wants.
We had a hell of a time signing out of the hospital…I think Simon should maybe just go to bed.
Lord, Frank, we bought munchies and booze…
Thanks for coming.
You do look tired.
Are you at least gonna let us sign your casts?
I’m so tired…
Gordon and Barry decide to give up–they both kiss him on the forehead.
You can bet we’ll be back to sign.
You get some rest now.
Gordon opens the door and walks out, followed by Barry.
There’s another character, Carl, who shows up quite frequently at the script’s beginning, but is nowhere to be seen by the script’s end. We first meet Carl when he selects a random guy from the street to be the “entertainment” at a party celebrating Simon’s gallery show.
We see Carl at the party, and then again, when he visits Simon in the hospital. And then, he just…vanishes.
In the movie, all of these scenes were removed except for the one where Carl chooses a random guy from the street. (More on that setup scene in screenwriting tip #5). I realize that Andrus was trying to make a point by the conspicuous absence of Simon’s friends from the second half of the script.
Despite his curmudgeon exterior, Melvin is the only one of Simon’s friends (besides Frank and Jackie) who cares enough to needle Simon back into the land of the living after his accident.
The problem with this method relates to screenwriting tip #1: all the scenes involving Simon’s friends telegraph that the script is about Simon, not Melvin.
Additionally, there’s a much simpler and more effective way to show that Simon’s friends have abandoned him. Instead of wasting hundreds of lines with Carl, Sally, Gordon, and Barry, you can replace all of that with…
…an index card.
In the movie, while Simon’s on the phone, wrapping up an awkward conversation, he holds an index card with the heading, “Friends to ask for money.” Every name, except for the last one–Carl’s–is crossed off. And it’s clear from Simon’s conversation that Carl just declined to help.
This sixty-second interstitial scene clearly shows us that Simon’s friends aren’t there for him during his time of need. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that we never see any of them visit Simon (except for Frank and Jackie).
Even more beautifully (at least structurally speaking), it occurs right before Melvin arrives to take Verdell for his walk. (For a more lighthearted example of excising characters, read screenwriting tip #5 from the Devil Wears Prada.)
Screenwriting Tip #5: Use minimal setup
Setups and payoffs are the secrets to plot twists and turns.
They keep the story going, which in turn, maintains the audience’s interest. But you have to be careful that you don’t go overboard with the setup. Too much of it weighs your story down and keeps it from progressing–exactly the opposite of what you intended.
In As Good As It Gets (both the screenplay draft and the movie), Simon is attacked when he stumbles upon thieves robbing his apartment. This attack is a critical event in the script; it’s the way Melvin becomes entangled in Simon’s life, triggering Melvin’s transformation into a better human being.
So how do you set up the attack beforehand?
If you just showed Simon being attacked, with no setup at all, it may come across as slightly contrived. You also miss opportunities to reveal more about Simon’s character–how he became the subject of a burglary in the first place. On the other hand, you can err on the side of too much set up.
In screenwriting tip #4, I mentioned that the screenplay draft of As Good As It Gets spent a lot of time setting up Carl and how he brought a street hoodlum (Randy in the script; renamed Vincent in the movie) into Simon’s life.
Randy’s the entertainment at Simon’s party. After Randy’s display, Simon asks him to pose for him. Randy agrees. (These scenes wasted approximately four screenplay pages.)
On the final day of Randy’s posing session, he lets in his two crazy friends who rob Simon’s apartment. One of them is high and carves his initials all over the place. Simon interrupts their drug-addled thieving spree, resulting in a vicious attack.
However, the attack itself could be set up much more economically, the way it was in the movie. In the movie, the party scene is cut. Carl pulls up his car to a sidewalk, and from a group of three hoodlums, hurriedly chooses Vincent to model for Simon.
When Vincent arrives at Simon’s apartment the first time, Simon casually remarks, “I usually make such a big deal about picking models, but Carl is so thorough. I bet he drove you nuts, checking your résumé,” and boom, the setup for the attack is complete.
When you’re revising your own screenplay, examine the scenes which are predominantly used to set up critical turning points in your story. Trim them down until the setup is conveyed in the most efficient way possible, without turning the scene into a sterile exercise in economy.
Screenwriting Tip #6: Be tonally consistent
As you write your screenplay, you’ll come up with some clever one-liners, poignant images, and hilarious comedy gags. Despite their awesomeness, you may have to cut them from your script simply because they don’t fit into the world you’ve created.
In other words, they aren’t tonally consistent. As a general example, you’d never expect to come across the raunchy hijinks of Wedding Crashers in a Nancy Meyers romantic comedy.
In the 1992 As Good As It Gets script, there were a few scenes at the beginning which just didn’t jive well with everything which followed. Randy being the “entertainment” for the party celebrating Simon’s gallery show is one. The way Simon’s apartment was robbed is another.
When Simon discovers the thieves in his apartment, one of the hoodlums, who’s high on something, flips out. He viciously attacks Simon with a switchblade, his actions fueled by fear and his drug-induced high. At various times, Simon is described like this:
Evan is slashing at Simon’s face, body, and hands…
…blood washes his face red, seeping onto his shirt and the floor. He writhes, erratically twisting and squirming, like a snake shedding its skin…
…the flowers scatter on the floor as the vase strikes Simon on the head; water from the vase washes the blood to a translucent red, nearly pretty. Randy drops the vase as he stands; it shatters, reflective chunks surrounding Simon’s head…
…the stillness and savageness in the room are its focus. There’s still beauty in the room: crystal scattering rainbow colored light; bronzes of soft shapes and stunning patinas; vibrant silk rugs and paintings of perfect places and shapes. The contrast is Simon, savagely cut, bloody and lifeless.
This description is beautiful, lyrical…and, in the last example, rather novelistic in nature. But the content itself doesn’t fit.
The image presented of Simon is too gory to belong in a romantic comedy about an OCD novelist trying to woo a restaurant waitress. An attack by a switchblade also comes across as too violent to belong in the world of the story, where the main examples of ugliness come from Melvin’s mean mouth.
In the movie, the thieves weren’t raving high (at least as far as I could tell), and they didn’t attack Simon with a switchblade. Instead, Evan attacked Simon with a coat rack, something he grabbed spontaneously.
While Evan was unnecessarily vicious with the coat rack, we never see Simon resting in a pool of blood on his own floor. We see him prostrate on the floor (but not bloodied), we see Verdell barking at his prone body, and then the movie cuts to Melvin talking to the police.
The violence of the scene is still there, only this time, we don’t have to witness the gory aftermath. Even at the hospital, when we see Simon for the first time after his attack, the extent of his injuries is related with a touch of humor.
Simon’s friend Jackie becomes a weeping mess, reels out a mirror from her purse, and then retracts it, saying to Simon, “Wait. I have a smaller one.”
You know the expression “kill your darlings.” I’d wager that at least half of the time, the darlings you must kill are ones which are tonally inconsistent within the context of your story world.
You must listen to that inner voice which tells you “this doesn’t really fit,” and ruthlessly cut those incongruous scenes, lines of dialogue, and images from your script. After all, you can always use them in another more suitable project.
Watching a blank screen (with modifications) by Kenneth Lu