by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Plenty of aspiring screenwriters can write a good script. They know how to format, they know all about structure and pacing and even character development and arcs. But the big piece of the pie that keeps many scripts from being not just good but great is meaning – the illusive “why should I care” of it all. So you’ve got a cool story with twists and snappy dialogue about a cop whose wife was murdered and he’s out to get revenge on the killer. Doesn’t matter. If I’m not emotionally invested in that cop’s journey for some compelling reason, I won’t care what happens.
Now, the flip side of this problem is poorly executed message movies – movies that have a moral, a lesson, or a clear statement to make. These sorts of screenplays take the idea of “why should I care” and offer up a clear answer. This can be a surprisingly tricky business, because very few people want to go to a movie that promises to preach at them about a particular topic. (That’s what we have documentaries for.)
It is possible to write a great message movie, but it requires finesse, subtlety, and an impeccable sense of story.
Jordan Peele’s Us has all of those things.
Let’s take a look at five lessons that can be learned from Us regarding how to write an effective message screenplay. (Lots of spoilers ahead.)
1. Entertainment / emotional impact comes first.
You may be reading this article right now thinking, “Message – what message?” I’m sure plenty of people walked out of the theater and didn’t perceive any sort of social commentary in Us at all. Some people might have even been looking for social commentary (particularly after seeing Get Out) and failed to find any. That sort of response, I would argue, doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence or even story sense. I’d wager it has a lot to do with personal experience and, perhaps most importantly, what you went into the theater wanting out of the movie. (To be clear, Us absolutely does have a message. More on that below.)
The point here is that this is actually a good thing. It shows that the film works as a piece of entertainment, as a piece of theater first. It isn’t just a vehicle for delivering a sermon. It’s a great story, well told, with strong emotional impact regardless of any particular message. Without any social commentary, it still satisfies the “why should I care” checkbox, because it makes us invest in this woman and her drive to both survive and to protect her family – particularly her son, who embodies the untarnished childhood that was stolen from her.
2. Remove your story at least one level from reality.
Film gives us the ability to illustrate a point, to share a truth or a lesson learned through the use of example or parable. But sometimes stories set within our current world hit a little too close to home to be effective. When audiences are able to put some distance between themselves and the movie that they’re seeing, that oddly makes it a bit easier to give into the story, which ultimately allows for a bigger impact.
Us does this through the use of genre. By raising important points about our society through the lens of horror, Jordan Peele allows viewers to remove themselves from Us’s world, because it isn’t our world. Other message movies do the same thing through the use of sci-fi (Wall-E, Planet of the Apes) or fantasy (The Lord of the Rings) or by setting the story in the past (BlacKkKlansman).
3. Avoid making your message concrete.
One of the things that makes Us so great is that the message of the film is never clearly laid out. No one other than Jordan Peele can definitively say, “THIS is what this movie is about.” And that’s because Peele introduces a lot of different fascinating ideas for audience members to ruminate over without drawing clear connections between anything.
For my part, I see Us as a commentary on how we as Americans treat disenfranchised populations in our country. That includes homeless people, poor people, immigrants, and people of color. Even before the big final twist, Red (Lupita Nyongo’s double) explains what’s going on during the classroom scene, and we really start to feel for her, realizing that she is the one who has suffered the most and that she really does deserve a better life in the sun. That doesn’t mean she should get to kill a bunch of people, but when the characters ultimately flip, I think that’s a great illustration of how we as a society have established a system that creates villains and then punishes them.
The idea of tethering is also a fascinating one that plays into the same social justice ideas. The way our country works now, I believe Peele is saying, the people at the top benefit by keeping the people below them down. There’s also an implication that the tethering goes both ways. The black family tethers itself to the white family in a way, with the dad in particular wishing he had a boat as big as theirs, a car as nice, and a fancy backup generator. But it’s all wasted energy. The dad is buying into this idea that being at the top equals happiness, but his family is already much happier.
I’d go so far as to say that the title itself underscores this reading. Us could be read U.S., or United States. It’s even written in that sixth-grade American History textbook font that we all remember so well. And the line that stands out the most in the whole film is Red’s answer to the question, who are you? – she says, “We are Americans.”
Again, this is just my reading. I haven’t even started reading all of the “End of Us Explained” articles out there, but I know there are many and that the theories are all over the place. And that’s awesome. Because the whole point of a message movie is to get people engaging with the work, having conversations about it and debating the bigger issues.
4. Metaphor is your friend.
Along the same lines as point number two, finding ways to express your big ideas through metaphor can go a long way toward making your message more impactful and your story stronger. In Us, the big metaphor – of course – is the doppelgängers, but it’s much less clear what they’re a metaphor for. I would say that the doppelgängers are a metaphor for all the people in our society that we regard as below ourselves, the people we have no time or sympathy for. I’m sure others will read this metaphor many different ways.
Carson Reeves over at ScriptShadow once reviewed a script called Meat that has a strong message about sustainability and animal rights. But rather than writing a movie about PETA activists who march on Washington, the writers chose to dramatize their message by creating a horror/mystery about a couple in the woods who realize that they’re being hunted by the forest creatures. That’s WAY more likely to get butts in the seats and spark debate while still delivering a strong message.
5. Save your big guns for the end.
The final act of Us is weird. There’s no denying it. The same is true of Get Out. A lesser filmmaker couldn’t get away with such big, not-so-logical reveals. But Peele makes it work by pulling you in with mystery, character, entertainment, and emotion first. By the time the big reveal comes around, you’re ready to accept it, because Peele has fully submerged you in his story world. If he started things off in either script with a clear look at the twist to come, neither film would have worked. In both cases, the audience needed to agree to go on the ride first.
There is plenty more to be learned from Us, both for storytellers with statements to make and those who simply want to tell great stories. Personally, I can’t wait to see how this film is debated and studied over the weeks, months, and decades to come. (Feel free to start the discussion right here in the comments.)
Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.