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Reading scripts. Absolutely critical to learn the craft of screenwriting. The focus of this weekly series is a deep structural and thematic analysis of each script we read. Our daily schedule:
Monday: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown
Tuesday: Major Plot Points
Today: Scene-By-Scene Breakdown. Here is my take on this exercise from a previous series of posts — How To Read A Screenplay:
After a first pass, it’s time to crack open the script for a deeper analysis and you can do that by creating a scene-by-scene breakdown. It is precisely what it sounds like: A list of all the scenes in the script accompanied by a brief description of the events that transpire.
For purposes of this exercise, I have a slightly different take on scene. Here I am looking not just for individual scenes per se, but a scene or set of scenes that comprise one event or a continuous piece of action. Admittedly this is subjective and there is no right or wrong, the point is simply to break down the script into a series of parts which you then can use dig into the script’s structure and themes.
The value of this exercise:
* We pare down the story to its most constituent parts: Scenes.
* By doing this, we consciously explore the structure of the narrative.
* A scene-by-scene breakdown creates a foundation for even deeper analysis of the story.
This week: Nightcrawler. You may download a PDF of the script — free and legal — here.
Written by Dan Gilroy.
IMDb Plot Summary: When Louis Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.
Scene by Scene Breakdown
By Marija Nielsen
This script is a little different from the norm in the sense that there are no sluglines nor scene numbers. The end result is a story that moves constantly forward, taking you from one location to the next without reminding you of it nor losing you. Day, Night, Int. or Ext. are expertly woven into the descriptions, underlining the fact that this is all about the protag, Lou Bloom. Thus, Gilroy takes us on a guided tour through the twisted world of his main character, showing us everything from his point of view only, making this a very interesting script to study.
P. 1–2: We meet LOU BLOOM, our protag, cutting through a fence in an industrial area. Confronted by a night guard, he deftly diverts attention from his obvious trespassing by asking the man questions about his job and by being excessively polite. And just as we’re wondering who exactly Lou is, he brutally attacks the guard over… his wrist watch. Bam. What an intro, what an unsettling character.
P. 3–4: Lou is expertly negotiating with a scrapyard owner in order to sell him copper wire, chain-link and manhole covers. This isn’t their first transaction but we still get the sense that this is definitely not what Lou does for a living. Who is this guy? Why does he need the money? And how does he get everyone to do what he wants?
P. 5–6: Lou is in his car, scrolling down a sex hook-up website on his phone, selects a nurse. They meet in a diner and once again, Lou shows that excessively polite side of him which is so unsettling, now setting off our alarm bells. He asks questions in such a way that it seems as if he’s trying to get inside the other person’s head, and also seems to know all there is to know about economics and the job market. It’s so impersonal that we’re wondering if Lou is even entirely human.
P. 7–9: We cut from the diner to Lou alone in his car. As he approaches an accident site on the freeway, he stops, drawn to the horrific activity. A news van draws up, the men inside jump out and start to film from what they perceive to be the “best possible angles”. Lou is transfixed. He walks up to one of the guys and asks a few questions about what they do and who to sell it too.
P. 9–12: We’re with Lou inside his one-bedroom apartment. It’s tiny but excessively neat. Under complete control, like Lou himself. He is flipping through the news channels until finally… on the KSML Morning News… the dreadful footage of the previous night’s accident fills the screen. CUT to another horrific crime scene. CUT to a commercial. CUT to people having a great time in sun-drenched Venice, Lou watching…
P. 13: … and waiting. A man steps off an expensive bike, locks it, enters a store. Lou immediately picks the lock and brings the bike to a pawnshop. Unhappy with the price offered by the owner, he instead asks for store credit for a camcorder and a police scanner.
P. 14–15: Night. Lou is in his car, listening to the jumble of codes and call signs on the police scanner. Finally, a fight nearby. He takes off, arrives at the scene. A bloodied black man sits handcuffed on the sidewalk while a bloodied teenager is talking to the cops. Lou starts filming, not really knowing what he’s doing. When the cops tell him to back off, he obeys.
P. 16–17: But Lou is not one to give up. He doggedly pursues accident after accident, quickly learning how to get the best shots while staying out of the way of cops and paramedics. Then, finally, a mini breakthrough as he overhears one side of a phone conversation between what is clearly an experienced cameraman and a news channel.
P. 17–22: Lou arrives at the KSML TV Station. He enters, walks around, arrives at the editing bay. And here, he meets NINA ROMINA, a “hard-bitten beauty” with a 30-year experience in the “blood-sport that is local TV news”. Lou watches her work until she notices him, mistaking him for a fill-in operator. He corrects her, tells her what he has to offer but Nina isn’t as easily swayed as the other characters we’ve met so far. She agrees to watch his footage, though, remaining unimpressed until we get to a truly shocking close-up of a gaping gunshot head wound. That she wants.
P. 23: Lou and Nina in her office. She hands him his first check. Gives him advice on equipment and how to work on scene. Tells him she wants to be his first call and what she likes: crime, accidents, bloody and violent. Lou gets it loud and clear.
P. 24: Lou in his apartment, watching his own footage on the KSML Morning News. He records it on a DVD player, downloads it onto his laptop in a brand new file.
P. 25–28: Lou is at Denny’s, interviewing Rick as a possible future assistant. Young Rick seemingly fits the bill and is promptly hired without knowing exactly what he’s in for. Lou is clearly a master in the art of lying and manipulating people, making him equally fascinating and repulsive.
P. 28–29: Lou and Rick in Lou’s car, listening to the police scanner. Once they’re on to something, off they go. But it’s Rick’s first time and he gives bad directions. We expect Lou to flip out but he remains on top of the situation, cool and in complete control. This guy is truly scary!
P. 30: Lou and Rick arrive late at the accident site. Other freelance crews are already packing up and leaving. As they drive away, Lou set things straight with Rick, ending the conversation by explaining how important it is to communicate. A little chilling coming from someone as non human as Lou.
P. 31–32: CUT to Lou and other crews filming a dead biker stuck under a car. CUT to Lou and Rick at a diner. CUT to yet another accident site — this time, it’s a crime scene.
P. 33–34: Lou and Rick are welcomed by a gawking neighbor with an ironic “F*** you, vulture motherf*****.” Well… Lou tries to get information but nobody knows much. On his way back to the car, he notices the cops talking to a couple in the garden of the adjacent house riddled with bullet holes. He walks over and enters the empty house, still filming. Steals a letter lying on the kitchen table.
P. 34–36: Lou is back at KSML with Nina and FRANK, the editor. They love the footage from inside the house until they find out that Lou entered without permission. Nina wants to run it, Frank doesn’t. Nina gets final say. CUT to Lou and Nina on the news set. Lou pays Nina a compliment on how she handled Frank, obviously trying to manipulate her into liking him but she doesn’t bite. Lou tells her about a business course that he studied on-line that supposedly led him to find out just exactly what he’s good at.
P. 37–39: Lou is in his apartment, watching his own footage on the KSML news. It’s ugly and exploitative and probably attracts a lot of viewers. Lou records it then downloads it to another new file on his computer. There’s a timelapse and the computer screen fills up with files of every crime or accident imaginable, the camera closing in on words that get ever bigger until BLOOD AND BRAINS SCREAM OUT AT US.
P. 40–42: Lou is filling up the gas tank on his brand new red Dodge Challenger, complimenting Rick on his progress while berating him for spilling a little gas on the car. They drive around talking, listening to the police scanner — work as usual. Another accident site. Dead bodies. No police, no paramedics yet. He starts filming. A familiar van drives up — it’s JOE LODER.
P. 42–43: CUT to the KSML station where Nina congratulates Lou on his third lead that week, pointing out that he’s got blood on his sleeve. Lou is predictably unfazed, asks Nina on a date. She refuses.
P. 44–45: As Lou exits the station, Joe Loder pulls up in his van, gets out. The experienced stringer gives him advice on how to get his footage out faster by uploading it to an FTP website. Then he offers Lou a job driving another van that he’s planning on buying. Lou refuses, he wants to work alone.
P. 46–49: Lou and Nina are on a date in a Mexican restaurant. It would seem that Lou does get all that he wants. The conversation goes from personal to work, Lou basically threatening to stop selling his footage to Nina if she doesn’t comply to his demands. It’s fascinating how Lou turns things around by putting the other person completely at ease before pouncing and showing his true self. Always calm, never overtly dangerous.
P. 50–52: Another time lapse and then we’re back inside the Challenger roaring through the streets of L.A. with Lou and Rick chasing down yet another horror site to film. They bicker about Rick’s salary — he wants more but Lou counters every one of his arguments with a better one. On top of the situation, as always.
P. 52–53: The police scanner spits out information about a light plane crash and they’re off. They park outside the police perimeter and start filming. As other stringers arrive, so does Joe Loder. The cameraman ducks under the police tape right in front of Lou and sprinkles a little salt in the wound by telling him that his second van is on the site of a suicide, the one he wanted Lou to drive.
P. 53–54: Lou is back at KSML with that night’s footage: one car accident, one stabbing. Nina wants the plane crash — he’s got nothing. She takes control of the situation, pressing Lou to do better than that because right now, he’s worthless to her. Ouch.
P. 54–54: A montage ending on Lou inside the Challenger. He parks next to a line of open garages, gets out a wrench then slides under one of the vans. It says “Mayhem Video” on the side, it belongs to Joe Loder.
P. 54–56: The Challenger thunders down a canyon road. Lou is on Rick’s case once more about the directions the young man is giving him. A control freak from head to toe. They take a sharp turn — Bam. Accident site. It’s the Mayhem Video van wrapped around a telephone pole. Lou gets out, starts filming the bloodied Joe Loder being carried away by paramedics. Another sale.
P. 57–59: Lou and Rick race into the Hills in the direction of a fire. As they arrive, it’s already over. Nothing more to see. It’s back down the road — Lou is the one who’s on fire, determined to get something really good. Finally, the police scanner spits out information about a home invasion.
P. 60: They arrive before the police or anyone else. Two gunshots from inside the house — the crooks are still there. They stay put. Two guys wearing ski masks run out, jump into a car, speed away. All being filmed by Lou.
P. 61–63: Lou gets out of the Challenger, enters the house, camera running. Blood. Alarm wailing. The dead body of an elderly Latin woman. Lou gets it on video, moves further ahead. Inside the kitchen lies the body of an elderly white man. Lou shoots it all, unaffected. Suddenly, the man’s hand closes around Lou’s ankle. Lou bends down for a close-up, starts asking questions. The man manages to get out a single word — the name Costilla — then dies. Lou leaves the kitchen, walks up the stairs, films the dead body of a white woman, then a shotgun shredded crib. There’s no baby inside. He gets every detail on camera before making a rapid exit.
P. 64: Lou and Rick race through the steeets to the KSML studio. Lou asks Rick to step outside as he downloads the footage to his laptop. He edits out the fleeing assailants and also his brief exchange with the dying man.
P. 65: Lou enters the TV station, heads straight for the newsroom. Nina berates hi for dodging her calls, he counters with the footage of the triple murder. The news is just breaking.
P. 66–70: Nina watches the footage with Frank and a young female producer. Another woman enters, Nina asks her if they can legally air this. Frank is unsurprisingly against it. Then Lou’s fee comes up and Nina asks everyone else to leave. Lou wants a cool million. No way. There’s a rough negotiation. Lou knows that this is worth a lot but Nina doesn’t have the budget. He won’t settle for less than 25,000.
P. 71–76: Bingo. “Breaking News: The Horror House.” Lou’s graphic footage spills on the screens, accompanied by the explicit voice-over of the anchorwoman. CUT to a KSML reporter on site. Just before going live, he tells them that the police are in an uproar and want to know who shot the footage.
P. 77–79: Lou is back at his apartment, watching the news. A knock at the door — it’s Detective Frontieri and her partner. They want answers to the previous night’s footage. Lou hands over the edited copy to Frontieri.
P. 80: Lou gets out his computer, watches the unedited footage of the two fleeing assailants. One of the men’s features are visible and so is the license plate. He types the number and the name Costilla in the search bar of the computer.
P. 81: Lou and Rick in the Challenger. Lou reveals to the young man that he has a name and an address for one of the assailants. And he promotes him to assistant, complete with pay raise.
P. 82–85: They arrive at the address, get out of the car, turn on the night vision view on the camera. Rick wants to negotiate a percentage on a possible reward. He’s getting tougher, not bowing down to Lou anymore. But it’s just a façade — even a hardened business woman like Nina has difficulties standing up to Lou.
P. 86–90: Time lapse. It’s past midnight now. Lou wakes up the sleeping Rick as the assailant leaves the house and gets in his van. They follow the guy to an apartment building. A large man exits, gets into the car. It’s obviously the second assailant. They tail the two guys to a fast food restaurant, then call 911. Lou gets out to wait for the police, camcorder in hand.
P. 91–92: The police arrive, silent, discreet. Three cops enter the fast food place. The two crooks clock them, start shooting. One cop is hit, so is one of the assailants, as well as several patrons. The other crook flees, gets in his car.
P. 92–98: Lou and Rick follow the fleeing assailant, filming as the police start pursuing. There’s a high-speed chase ending in crashes and explosions. Lou sees the wounded assailant behind the wheel of his crashed car. They stop, get out, run in that direction, both filming. Lou hides the assailant from Rick. The guy sees them, raises his gun. Lou veers to the side — blam, blam, blam. Rick takes three point-blank shots to the chest. Lou keeps filming, closing in on Rick. The dying man realizes that Lou did this on purpose. Lou tells him he can’t jeopardize his company’s success over an untrustworthy employee. It’s over. Lou picks up Rick’s camcorder, leaves the scene.
P. 98–99: Lou heads over to KSML. Banters with the anchors. Joins Nina in the editing bay. She’s ecstatic. And Lou now sets his own fees.
P. 100–103: Lou’s footage fill the screens. Then Detective Frontieri her partner enter the station, demanding that all the footage be pulled and handed over as evidence because of dead or severely wounded cops. Nina refuses — protecting Lou. The partner notices Lou, notifies Frontieri. The cuff him, take him away. Frank tells Nina that drugs were found at the dead assailant’s house. Nina doesn’t care — she wants Lou’s footage. Frank retorts that she’s sounding like Lou. Nina responds that he’s an inspiration to all of them. The footage runs.
P. 103–106: Lou and Detective Frontieri sit in an interrogation room. Lou politely tell her what happened. She isn’t buying his version but she has no counter evidence.
P. 106: Lou leaves the police station. Blends into the crowd. Fade to white.
P. 106–108: Fade back from white on two news vans side-by-side in a parking lot. On their sides, it says “Video Nows Productions”. Two young men and one young woman stand next to vans, wearing identical t-shirts. Lou arrives, addressing his new employees. End credit roll.
Writing Exercise: I encourage you to read the script, but short of that, if you’ve seen the movie, go through this scene-by-scene breakdown. What stands out to you about it from a structural standpoint?
Major kudos to Marija Nielsen for doing this week’s scene-by-scene breakdown.
To download a PDF of the breakdown, go here.
Tomorrow: We zero in on the major plot points in Nightcrawler.
I am looking for volunteers to read a script and provide a scene-by-scene breakdown for it to be used as part of our weekly series. What do you get? Beyond your name being noted here, my thanks, and some creative juju, hopefully you will learn something about story structure and develop another skill set which is super helpful in learning and practicing the craft.
The latest volunteers:
Birdman — Doc Kane
Dallas Buyers Club — Devin Dingler
Frozen — Doc Kane
Gone Girl — Ashley
Looper — Michael Perkins
Nebraska — David Joyner
Nightcrawler — Marija Nielsen
The Wolf of Wall Street — Paul Graunke
To see examples of scene-by-scene breakdowns, go here. Part of the goal is to create a library of breakdowns for writers to have at their disposal for research and learning.
You may see the scripts we can use for the series — free and legal — by going here.
To date, we have analyzed 47 movie scripts, a great resource for screenwriters. To see those analyses, go here.
Thanks to any of you who will rise to the occasion and take on a scene-by-scene breakdown.
And for those of you who have volunteered, please send me your scene-by-scene breakdown as soon as possible!
Circling back to where we started, reading scripts is hugely important. Analyzing them even more so. If you want to work in Hollywood as a writer, you need to develop your critical analytical skills. This is one way to do that.
So seize this opportunity and join in the conversation!
I hope to see you in comments about this week’s script: Nightcrawler.
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