Addressing forgiveness, Martin McDonagh’s writing and execution goes beyond Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges to reach new heights in this blockbusting, dark comedy.
A masterclass in the craft, here are 15 lessons for screenrwriters and filmmakers taken from the movie.
1. If an idea persists, it’s probably a good one
Travel back in time 17 years and McDonagh spots a sign that inspired Three Billboards. Tapping and tapping at his brain, he eventually twisted the inspiration and wrote the screenplay we love.
2. Get raged
Compelling drama has conflict at its core and in Three Billboards each character rubs every other character up the wrong way. Find unique ways each of the characters in your web can conflict uniquely with the others.
3. Write for actors
Mildred was written for McDormand and inspired by her fiery stage performances. Call in your heroes to add life and spice to your characters.
4. Go old school with pen and paper
Claiming lack of access to your laptop is no excuse to avoid your script. Three Billboards was written on planes, trains and automobiles as McDonagh fired around the states in five weeks.
5. There’s truth in tight spaces
Amongst the nooks and sentiments of a small town, it’s far easier to be tractor-beamed in to the emotive subtleties of our characters. Three Billboards carries otherwise absurd twists, leaning on the quirks of rural neuroses.
6. Blockbusters needn’t break the bank
A snip at £12m, Three Billboards is a studio’s dream. A great script is a great script regardless of huge spectacle. Focus on great theme, plot and character to entertain.
7. Escalate, escalate, escalate
Writing your next box office smash, take a leaf out of McDonagh’s book and make sure that each plot development builds in pathos for truly edge-of-the-seat twists.
8. Let it loose
Understand story structure but use your knowledge to break the rules. Mildred’s our bad hero, Chief Willoughby stands in her way but he’s not black orwhite, and Dixon starts as an underling then steals the show. The Hero’s Journey? Not here!
9. Write multiple catharses
Mildred, Chief Willoughby, Dixon, Red Welby and James all experience a catharsis of sorts. Without spoiling, and despite an open ending, the story is cleverly wrapped.
10. Capture beautiful shots
Raising the bar on cinematography above In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards opens with poignant shots of forgotten billboards of once-happy children playing by the road. They act as great metaphors and show us immediately that this is art.
11. Keep it short
85 pages is all it takes for McDonagh to prop a back story, make us laugh, cry, breath a sigh of relief and bring 5 characters to catharsis. Cut the waffle.
12. Stay in theme
Each character is a different articulation in the overarching theme of forgiveness. With a watertight theme you can stay on point with every word.
13. Work with a trusted team
Familiarisation with actors and loyalty to a creative team has resulted in multiple international awards for the film. Rockwell in particular shines in a complex and daring role as the ignorant, annoying and racist, Dixon.
Proudly hailing from Irish parents, experiences in London and the States have contributed to an eclectic and finely tuned story for McDonagh. He says, ‘Everywhere I go I feel like this could be a film.’
15. Be human
All about rage, frustration and revenge, Three Billboards doesn’t stay in that place. It sees another side to things and brings us to hope. Human messages win in the end.
Follow the links to read original screenplay excerpts by blog author, screenwriter and filmmaker Peter Boydell and follow him on Instagram @lovescreenwriting
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