Elements of cinema – 1: The Script

In the introduction to my “Forty films” list, I asserted that many people are, effectively, looking in the wrong place for ‘art’ in films. One of the things I was thinking about was the central place of ‘plot’ and ‘theme’ in many people’s estimation.

I am a child of the 60s and the culturally dominant aesthetic of cinema in the 1960s was the politique des auteurs. In a nutshell, this idea, originally espoused by François Truffaut, and embraced by his friends and colleagues, was that critical orthodoxy at the time (in referring, principally to French cinema) massively overvalued literary values and worthy stories at the expense of truly expressive and cinematic values that were not the product of literate scripts but expressive mise en scène by the director.

This is an idea that struck a chord with me in my late teens and I have only rarely had to modify that view in the intervening fifty years. However, I was, from time to time, inclined to feel that the scenarist has been undervalued critically and when great scripts get made, sometimes the director gets the credit.

So, today, I want to look at a modern film script that shows what the scenarist brings to the creative process. It just so happens that the scenarist of this film is also its director, but that doesn’t matter as I only want to talk about the way in which the script elevates and expresses the film’s qualities.

The film I am talking about is Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. You can download the film’s shooting script by clicking here.

In Bruges is a magnificent morality play that takes a critical look at redemption and turns many of our easily held moral judgements inside out. It seems very ‘Irish’ but not a frame takes place in Ireland. The very nature of what follows forces me to reveal many spoilers, so, if you haven’t seen the film, please, stop and click here to buy a modestly priced DVD, or download immediately,  one of the best films you will see all year . (And please return when you have seen it! )

So, what’s in a script? Yes there’s action and plot and dialogue (of which more later), but, more importantly it will determine the characters, the structure and the thematic heart of the film. So let’s look at them.

The film is self-evidently a black comedy – the story of two Irish hit men who botch a mob killing and are sent to Bruges to be dealt with , but McDonagh, from very early on in the film, brings serious theological questioning into the script, largely by inverting our sense of morality and making the most attractive characters do very ‘evil’ things.

It commences with one of the most brilliant opening lines of dialogue that I can remember:

Ray – After I killed them….

Most films that revolve around a murder make the murder the central incident in the story  – Psycho, for example. It is the same for literature – viz. MacBeth or Crime and Punishment –  and though it is not always central to the theme of the work, its gravity is acknowledged in its structural importance, but here, it has happened even before the film has started (though we see it in flashback, but that is to draw the analogy with the final scene).

Originality is not “the most important thing” in a film, but it’s inverse – the derivative and the clichéd are some of the most glaring faults. There is certainly nothing clichéd about the cast of characters of In Bruges. All of the major characters are defined, effectively, with qualities that are the opposite of what we expect. There is an arms dealer who is obsessed with the intricacies of the English language – two hilarious scenes have him agonising over the pronunciation of ‘dumdum’ and the correct use of the word ‘alcove’. Click here for a clip.


There is a dwarf who has bizarre racist ideas, and does all kind of drugs, and a drug pusher with a heart of gold. The ostensible villain of the piece – Harry the psychotic mob boss (Ralph Feinnes) – is shown to be unexpectedly honourable when he blows his own head off (as he had earlier indicated that he would), when he realises that he has killed ‘a child’ (actually the dwarf dressed up as a schoolboy).

There is also an adage about film which says that it can give objects life.  There is a wonderful example of this when Harry throws an explosive tantrum after being told by Ken that he hadn’t killed Ray as demanded.   Harry stares at the telephone receiver then smashes it time and time again on a table top; no only does this show just how to be feared Harry is, but it shows his powerlessness at that moment, and the smashing of the phone is a classic example of ‘killing the messenger’. The telephone receiver becomes the object of his ire, and, when his wife intervenes by reminding him (of the phone) that “It’s an inanimate fucking object!” to which Harry, bizarrely replies “You’re an inanimate fucking object.” as if to emphasise what a crazy mental world he inhabits.


Ken and Ray: two killers divided by culture.

But it is in the two central characters – Ken and Ray (Brendan Gleason and Colin Farrell, respectively) – that McDonagh’s playful method defines itself. They continue the methodology of having anti-archetypal characteristics, but in totally different ways so that they are at once similar and opposite.  Ken is cultured, religious and loyal to his boss friend Harry. Ray is uncultured, sceptical and clearly holds Harry in some, albeit fearful contempt.

Their attitude to culture is beautifully defined in an early exchange of dialogue:

Ray: Bruges is a shithole.

Ken: Bruges is not a shithole.

Ray: Bruges is a shithole.

What we have already seen, when this exchange takes place, is that Bruges is a magnificent well-preserved mediaeval city, so Ray’s assertions tell us nothing about Bruges, but a lot about him. And this ‘uncultured lout’ image is reinforced in his attitudes – mildly homophobic (he describes the small glasses of beer ordered by Ken as ‘Gay beer’ as opposed to his large ‘real beers’).  One of the comic high-points is his insensitive treatment of a family of severely overweight Americans click here to see the clip:

An extremely creative part of script-writing is the control of information between the audience and the characters. This is playfully acknowledged in the above scene when Ken emerges from the tower, not having experienced the previous scene and falls into the same ‘trap’ as Ray, in trying to be helpful. The fabulous irony of this scene only emerges in a throwaway line of dialogue later in the film when the ticket-seller in the tower (who had previously been so unhelpful with Ken) announces that “The tower is usually open until seven. Yesterday an American had a heart attack up the tower. The tower is closed this evening.” So Ray’s insensitivity was entirely justified!

Another funny, but less than attractive aspect of Ray’s character is his tendency to base his attitude to things from a very narrow knowledge base. For example, dwarfs, whom he happily calls ‘midgets’, have a tendency to suicide. This gem he makes the subject of a conversation with his newly-found girlfriend.

America? The Vietnam war and the killing of John Lennon: click here for the famous restaurant scene.

Incidentally,  this scene follows a somewhat tortuous conversation between Ken and Ray as to when it is acceptable to hit someone first rather than as retaliation and Ray is very certain that, if someone comes at you with a bottle, to hit first is justified!

Some of the best aspects of the film are the ironies that proliferate in its moral heart. Ray has, accidentally, killed a child while carrying out a contract killing of a priest; (one of the film’s imponderables is the reason for that killing).  Ray is sinking in a vortex of guilt and despair. This is not helped by the fact that among the cultural attraction to which Ray is dragged by Ken is The Last Judgement triptych by Hieronymus  Bosch, and one of the churches contains a phial of Jesus’ blood!

Ken has a pivotal rôle in all this, and the peak of irony is reached in the following scene – click here


This scene seems to me to be filled with some very deep Catholic logic: that to allow someone to kill himself is worse than to kill him.

The scene is incredibly impressive at a level of film-craft – the complex inter-cutting of gestures and movement is a brilliant piece of ‘direction’ or ‘editing’, but look at the shooting script – pages 59-63! It’s all there!! So perhaps when, unlike here, films are made from scripts not written by their directors, it’s all there too.

So does this mean t hat suddenly, film directors are simple craftsmen, slavishly presenting the great creative works of genius scenarists? For a while, I started to worry and wonder, but that is not the case. I checked out the script of Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (from a magnificent script be Leigh Brackett – the most talented woman in Hollywood for years). But when I looked for one of the great expressive scenes – the arrival of Bull in the first section of the film, I discovered that it wasn’t there. It had been restructured and improvised by Hawks during the shoot.

Martin McDonagh was writing In Bruges for himself to direct, so it is natural that he started to ‘direct’ the film on the page, professional script-writers such as the late great Leigh Brackett, wouldn’t have done that – they ‘knew their place’. But there are examples, even modern ones, where scenes are remarkably detailed in the shooting script. In the film Se7en, there is a scene in which Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) are researching the murders – one in a library, the other at home. This elegant montage is accompanied by a recording of Bach’s Air on a G string. Click here to see the scene. This is all in the script, even the choice of music, and it wasn’t written by David Fincher!

The great dark heart of In Bruges came from Martin McDonagh’s vision, and the ‘visionary’ directors of the past, like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini all, largely, wrote their own scripts. The politique des auteurs is not yet dead. But we should pause to give all directors credit for the thematic inspirations of their films that may have come from somebody quite ‘else’.

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Retired cultural cinema director and film magazine editor living in deepest rural France.

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