Book Review: A24’s Screenplay Collection
Photos provided by A24
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) is beloved not only because it’s a superlative piece of filmmaking, but because of its familiarity. Though its specific setting is Sacramento in the early 2000s, it so well captures the experience of finishing high school—and applying to college and fighting with a parent—as to be universal. Those who attended Catholic school may relate especially well, but the broad consensus is that Gerwig’s solo debut deserves the accolades, its heart-wrenching moments leavened by the uplifting.
Lady Bird, a delight on the screen, is now available on the page as part of A24’s series of screenplay books. A24, the company behind Lady Bird and other recent triumphs, has packaged the screenplays for a number of its films in handsome coffee-table books. Gerwig’s film is the sixth and most recent entry in the series; leafing through the book will undoubtedly enrich your next viewing.
Early in Gerwig’s screenplay, we find the screen directive for the scene in which Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, becomes so fed up arguing with her mother, Marion, portrayed by Laurie Metcalf, that she barrels out of a moving vehicle. The understated language of the script sits humorously next to the absurdity of the events it portrays:
They slow for a stop light and Lady Bird dramatically opens the door and rolls out of the car. Marion screams.
Book Review: A24’s Screenplay Collection
As with all the books in this series, the screenplay is accompanied by additional material, including movie frames—each volume has 24 of these—and critical essays. There are also letters that Gerwig wrote to Dave Matthews, Alanis Morissette and Justin Timberlake, asking permission to use their music in the film. The brief foreword comes courtesy of Stephen Colbert, who celebrates the film’s portrayal of “the beauty and anxiety of everyday life.” That seems just about right, an appropriate verdict on a number of A24 creations.
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) was the first entry in the screenplay series. Garland’s send-up of technological hubris and the ethical implications of advanced artificial intelligence, which plays out in a remote compound in the Alaska wilderness, is an outstanding aesthetic achievement. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is presented here in the frames, showcasing the strange environment inhabited by humans Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and androids Ava (Alicia Vikander) and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).
The text of the screenplay shows a sharp-eyed commitment to scene-setting. Here, for instance, is Caleb after entering Nathan’s compound, searching for his boss.
INT. HOUSE/MAIN ROOM – DAY
The front door opens to a glass-walled staircase, which leads down to an open-plan room.
At the bottom of the staircase, CALEB waits to see if he is welcomed, or noticed.
But he is not.
Then he is startled a second time, by sudden commencement of a THUMPING SOUND.
Abrupt. Rapid. More or less rhythmic. From somewhere nearby.
He exits in the direction of the noise.
INT. HOUSE/DINING AREA – DAY
CALEB enters a dining area.
Which now reveals…
…a huge glass door.
It presents an arresting view of a garden, river, and the mountains behind.
The door is open, and through it, we see the reason for the thumping sound.
Just outside, on a patio, in the sunshine, a man is working a PUNCH BAG.
From Caleb’s second session interviewing Ava, when the power cuts off:
Power cut. Backup power activated.
Then the soft emergency lighting lifts up, and throws the observation room into a completely different light.
Weirder. Cast from LED strips on the floor, illuminating CALEB and AVA’s faces from below.
In the low light, we see a detail of AVA’S honeycomb skin-mesh that we were not able to see before.
It glows, soft, like phosphorescence – and this changes the way we see AVA. Where the mesh is almost invisible in bright conditions, it is now the dominant describer of her form.
The Ex Machina book concludes with an essay by Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics who consulted on Garland’s film. It’s an arresting and thought-provoking piece. Shanahan, considering the notion of conscious and human-like AI, writes that we should “step back and reflect on what is the right thing to do. Because even with the best intentions, we might end up adding greatly to the world’s suffering by giving birth to something whose needs we might struggle to understand.” It’s a grim prospect, but one Ex Machina compels us to ponder.
Then there’s 2016’s Moonlight. Barry Jenkins’s screenplay, based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, walks us through this virtuosic coming-of-age story’s various unforgettable scenes. These include Chiron as a child (Alex Hibbert), learning to swim with the help of his father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali); as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), attacking his school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile) in a fit of rage; and as an adult (Trevante Rhodes), reconnecting with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) in an Atlanta rehab facility. The book also features a loving tribute by Hilton Als and a short “prologue” by Frank Ocean, an underrated writer in his own right.
Also collected here are the acceptance speeches from the infamous 2017 Academy Awards (remember that debacle?). Moonlight, after some difficulties, was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture, while Jenkins and McCraney won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Ali was named Best Supporting Actor. The text accompanying the speeches notes that Moonlight was the first film centered on an LGBTQ character to win Best Picture, the first film featuring an all-Black cast to win Best Picture and the lowest-budget Best Picture winner ever. Thus far, it is A24’s crowning achievement.
A24’s screenplay series also includes The Witch (2015), 20th Century Women (2016) and Hereditary (2018). Each comes with its own tasty accoutrements. The book for The Witch, for instance, features a conversation between director Robert Eggers and Harvard Divinity School professor David D. Hall, an expert in Puritan America. Eggers, at one point, responding to Hall’s discourse about Calvinist theology and Puritan devotional practices, notes that “the Puritans may not be known for visual arts and music, but they kind of didn’t need it because their entire life was a work of art.” “That’s a terrific way of putting it,” the professor responds.
These books would make a worthy gift for film buffs as we approach the holiday season. While the editorial accompaniments provide context and critical insight, the screenplays themselves, though easy enough to find online, invite a fuller engagement in these packages. The series offers a great opportunity to approach a film as a writer envisioned it—and to see how the pages translate on the screen. Let’s hope that volumes of Uncut Gems or The Lighthouse, two especially meme-worthy films from 2019, appear before long.