Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.
The screenplay for a film is essentially the blueprint for the whole project: this is where the world, the characters and story are born from. From there, many people and their respective departments get their hands on the script and adapt it in their own way to help bring the screenplay to life. Most notably the director will have a vision to, well, visualise the writer’s narrative. Screenplays can be adapted in an infinite number of ways but there are some scripts which have such a strong visual identity, that to steer into a different visual style would be a giant disservice to the narrative; Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is such a script.
Back in 2005 Michael Bacall was brought on to write the screenplay for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with director Edgar Wright: an adaptation of a popular manga series which hit cinemas in 2010. The film was a commercial bomb but a critical hit, and over the years the film became a cult classic. Ten years later, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World still remains hugely popular with its fans; so much so that the cast and director recorded a live table-read to celebrate the film’s anniversary. The film itself is loved for its great cast, comic book visual style and the many, many pop culture references. Even with Wright’s brand of snappy editing and energetic pacing, it’s interesting to see how much of the now iconic visual style actually came from an early draft of the screenplay written by Bacall.
When writing a story through an absurd visual style, it is best to introduce your audience to that concept as early as possible. Bacall manages to achieve this on the second page of the screenplay, where the titular Scott (Michael Cera) recounts how he met his new girlfriend Knives (Ellen Wong):
The brilliance of using the non-diegetic fact box and stars in Knives’s eyes is that it isn’t just style, it has substance too. On a surface level, these visual effects let the audience know what kind of film they’re in for: a loose, tongue-in-cheek ride. They also give the audience an idea of the characters and their characteristics: the fact box gives us some basic information about the protagonist and the stars show Knives’ adoration for Scott. But Bacall doesn’t stop there. Since this scene is an anecdote from Scott, telling his friends how he and Knives met, the over-the-top style tries to make himself look stoic and cool; when in fact this tells us he is big-headed and immature.
With the story’s unique style introduced, Bacall slowly dials up the absurdity over the next thirty pages, leading to Scott and Ramona’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) kissing scene:
This scene emphasises how the outlandish visual style is great for showing us Scott’s internal thoughts and feelings. The Fantasy-Sex Bob-omb playing in the background is hilarious but it also feeds into Scott’s narcissism: getting intimate with the girl out of his league in front of his friends. Scott is so narcissistic even his fantasy-self gives him a thumbs up of approval. Having the band play something akin to a Barry White track hammers home how much of a teenage boy’s fantasy the whole situation is. Bacall can push the absurdity here because he has already established the screenplay’s tone and style to the audience earlier on.
Catering towards a pretty specific demographic (young adults familiar with pop culture references) will of course cause some problems, most notably for producers and studio executives who will be reading the screenplay and hopefully financing the project. One such example can be seen during the first major fight scene:
The biggest, and most frequent, references throughout the screenplay are those from video games but not everyone is a gamer. Having a hero pose is pretty self-explanatory but having a hero pose that is akin to character poses from the Street Fighter game series might alienate some readers and could turn off those who you’re trying to squeeze some money out of. This reference does however cater directly towards the intended audience demographic. It is clear that Bacall understands he is writing with a specific audience in mind but that he also needs to make the screenplay understandable for an executive:
Again, Bacall achieves several things within a single page. Having a character suddenly have half of their dialogue bleeped out would throw audiences off but this is Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and we’re already prepared for anything weird and strange. The bleeping then feeds into Scott asking how Julie (Aubrey Plaza) is doing that. The meta humour is just right for the young adult audience Bacall is aiming to please but it also erases any concerns from executives about the screenplay suddenly having a slew of f-bombs, which would have certainly made Scott Pilgrim vs. the World an R-rated feature.
As the screenplay goes on, the visual style starts to incorporate other character’s arcs whilst still remaining somewhat within Scott’s viewpoint. This mostly comes in the form of the fun fact box, as seen here with Knives at different points within the screenplay:
At this point in the screenplay, Scott has dumped Knives to be with Ramona and from the minimal information in the text box we know she isn’t of much interest to him anymore.
Later on, she has more characteristics in her fact box. Coming from Scott’s viewpoint the facts aren’t exactly positive but it still nonetheless adds to her journey and character arc. Bacall changes the fact box several times for Knives throughout the screenplay but also does the same for most of the main cast. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World feeds its unique style into the core of the story and it’s characters.
Bacall has written a script that oozes with style but keeps the story’s substance. He manages to establish how Scott’s world functions early on to ease audiences in but each visual flair has a technical use that advances the character arcs and narrative. The screenplay is perfect for Wright and his intelligent, comedic style with the film’s popularity ten years later only proving how much of a perfect marriage that pairing was- or whatever.
The Scott Pilgrim vs. the World screenplay can be found at: http://www.cinefile.biz/script/scottpilgrim.pdf