What 'Goodfellas' Can Teach Us About Screenwriting
Martin Scorsese's 1990 classic Goodfellas is arguably one of the best modern American gangster films. The film was a return to form for Scorsese, who spent most of the 80s (save Raging Bull) making quirky films and one controversial biblical epic. Goodfellas, adapted from Nicolas Pileggi's book Wiseguy, was scripted by Pileggi and Scorsese. So what can we learn about the art of screenwriting from the film?
Over at ScriptShadow, they have a great post about the screenplay for Scorsese's 1990 masterpiece, and 10 tips every screenwriter can learn from the film:
While the story structure was put in place by the writers, much of the great dialogue was discovered through rehearsals, where Scorsese let his actors roam free, then wrote into the script many of the lines they came up with. While Pileggi wanted to follow a traditional narrative, Scorcese didn’t think it was necessary, believing the film was more a combination of episodes, and those episodes could be told out of order. It’s this and a few other non-traditional choices that make Goodfellas so interesting to study as a screenplay.
Goodfellas is structured as a tragedy, wherein the first half of the film details Henry Hill's rise in the mob, and the second his inevitable downfall, fueled by greed and cocaine (which, as we all know, is a helluva drug). Unlike The Godfather, which leans towards a more romanticized image of the mafia, Goodfellas never shrinks away from the ugly realities of a life of crime. Goodfellas also makes extensive use of voice over, always a tricky thing to pull off:
If Henry is robbing people and cheating on people and killing people without him ever telling us why, there’s a good chance we’ll turn on the character. But because he’s explaining it to us as he goes along via voice over, we understand his choices. It’s kind of like hearing that some random person you don’t know is cheating on their spouse. You immediately conclude that they’re a terrible person. But when your best friend cheats on their spouse, and they explain to you why they’re doing it and what went into the choice, you’re more okay with it. Voice-over can be very powerful that way.
Many screenwriting books will tell you to avoid voice over whenever possible, but it can be an incredibly effective device, like the scene below which shows us Henry's world behind bars. We feel privy to inside information -- to "what's really going" -- which is, of course, one of the themes in Goodfellas (an unvarnished look at life in the mob):
An issue with voice over is that too frequently it's used in a lazy manner to communicate information that would be better off being dramatized, as in the old rule, "show, don't tell."
Here's another interesting tip -- this one about complicating your scenes:
Driving a dead guy into the woods to bury him isn’t a very interesting scene. Driving a “dead guy” who all of a sudden starts banging on the inside of the trunk (Oh no, he’s still alive), is. And it leads to one of the most memorable moments in Goodfellas, when Tommy starts bashing the still-moving bloody mattress cover over and over again. Try not to allow your scenes to move along too smoothly. Always complicate them somehow. It usually results in something more interesting.
The post is packed with great information for every screenwriter. Goodfellas is a breath-taking visual experience, but it also packs a mean narrative punch. What lessons do you think an indie screenwriter can take from Goodfellas when it comes to storytelling?