The Devil Wears Smart Theme:
Principles to Help Inject Smart Theme Into Your Script
[This is the expanded version of an article that will be published in next month’s issue of Hollywood Scriptwriter Magazine]
Bring up The Devil Wears Prada in conversation and you’ll likely feel a giddy charge in the air as people clamor to exclaim things like, “It was actually about something!” Isn’t that what we all want as storytellers? To create a piece of work that takes audiences by surprise and compels them to spread the word that an actual goodmovie has arrived on the scene? Devil’s overwhelming positive buzz undeniably proves that America is hungry for entertainment that goes hand-in-hand with thematically smart storytelling. Here is a lightweight summer star vehicle that has dared to forego the kind of mindless focus-group pandering for which Hollywood is typically known – and the result has been overwhelming critical and commercial success. Let’s take a closer look at some of Devil’s underlying principles to see how you can inject similar thematic complexity into your own script regardless if you’re writing an art-house drama or mainstream summer fare.
Clearly know the values at stake in your script.
Devil screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna guides the viewer through a story whose every scene, every relationship and every character reflects the central struggle between personal and professional fulfillment. Consider the initial montage that contrasts the morning routine of down-to-earth heroine Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) and her more cutthroat future coworkers: whereas Andy occupies a ramshackle home with an adoring boyfriend and mementoes of a loving family, her soon-to-be coworkers navigate a much more lavish but heartless lifestyle that directly results from their mastery of the trendsetting fashion empire. One world carries all the benchmarks of sophistication and worldly goods while the other boasts a “home is where the heart is” mentality.
With this one montage, Devil comes out of the gates saying, “There are two distinct values at work – the pay-off of worldly success and the pay-off of personal success.” McKenna provides a a clear model for each side of the coin and thereby lays the foundation for a clear, progressive struggle that will continue throughout the movie. Each character in the movie falls into one of the two thematic camps and possesses a clear point-of-view about the price of professional success.
- What are the opposing values that will duke it out in your script (justice versus injustice, truth versus falsehood, anger versus forgiveness, etc)?
- What side does your hero represent at the beginning? How so? What side does your antagonist represent? How so?
- What about the secondary characters? Which camp do they fall into?
- What are their respective points-of-view about your thematic values
Provide Your Antagonist with a Legitimate Viewpoint!
McKenna quickly elevates fashion diva Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) far above banal stereotype by legitimating what initially seems to be a vapid life outlook. When Andy snickers over her boss’ obsessive attention to couture detail, Miranda fires back with a monologue that clearly explains why fashion is in fact a hugely important business enterprise of global proportions. With this one exchange, McKenna forces Andy and the viewer to reconsider previously held perceptions of the fashion industry and makes a case as to why the antagonistic values should be taken seriously.
All too often, writers vilify their antagonists as a means of forcing viewers to take the hero’s side. Such two-dimensionality immediately renders your movie shallow since it hinges on contrived characterizations that fail to mirror the complexity of life. The only way to adequately explore a thematic issue is to give fair representation to all different sides of the coin, to give legitimacy to each point-of-view. Think of it this way: if your antagonist lacks a compelling reason for action, then your hero lacks a worthy opponent. Your script is over as soon as it begins because we have all the information you’re going to give us by the end of the first ten pages. There’s no point in exploring the clash between two values if one side is going to be undercut by cliche and stereotypes.
- What is your antagonist’s legitimate reason for living as s/he does? What is your antagonist’s sound, logical argument for why it is unequivocally best to make certain kinds of decisions? And why any other way of living simply doesn’t make sense?
Explore how your antagonist’s demons live within your hero.
The central debate between personal and professional fulfillment deepens when kindly coworker Nigel (Stanley Tucci) lambastes Andy for being so blinded by her moral high ground that she has failed to recognize the great professional opportunity at her disposal. After haughtily judging her new peers for their judgmental elitism, Andy is forced to recognize that she has been equally dismissive of this universe and its merits. It is incredibly important for the hero to at some point recognize how s/he mirrors the antagonist’s most despised traits; this powerful revelation takes the central debate to a new level as the hero attempts to find a correct balanced approach to life.
- How is your hero exactly like your antagonist? How does that revelation compel your hero to new action?
Explore the Gifts of the Antagonist’s World
Andy’s new awareness compels her to embrace her job’s numerous gifts: the boosted confidence of a new makeover; a heightened sense of efficiency; amazing industry contacts; the chance to meet her idols. You need to show how the antagonist’s world really does provide answers to life’s problems, why it is genuinely productive and seductive.The resultant tension forces Andy to make a series of progressive choices that put her squarely in the middle of personal versus professional fulfillment. Whether forced to decide between spending time with her visiting father or answering a work call, between claiming a hard-earned professional opportunity or attending her boyfriend’s birthday, between standing by her ethics or accepting a promotion promised to another coworker, Andy constantly navigates the pull between the warring values.
Just like your antagonist should demosntrate a good dose of humanity, your hero should be allowed space to make mistakes. Don’t fall into the trap of exempting your hero from any bad behavior or blame; writers that fear crafting “unlikable” heroes fail to realize that audiences relate more to realistically fallible personalities than to standard-issue do-gooders that are always above reproach.
- What are tangible positives of living life according to the antagonist? How is that world legitimately seductive?
- What are three progressively active choices your hero must make between the two warring values?
But don’t forget the equally important risk of the antagonist’s world
Just like you need to weight the opposition with legitimacy, you also need to stack it with a converse amount of setbacks to maximize thematic tension. Andy’s induction into the fashion world triggers a clean progression of personal risk when it comes to her loved ones: her obsession with work initially causes minor tension at casual outings, then alienates her neglected boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier), all leading to a disruptive climax when best friend Lilly (Tracie Thoms) catches Andy in a work-related flirtation and Nate further ends their relationship altogether. The push/pull between advantages and disadvantages of both values builds to such a point that no easy answer seems possible. Yes, Miranda’s world has supplied many surprising positives – but it has also supplied a consistently progressive set of negatives that forces Andy to constantly reassess where she stands in the midst of this war.
- What is at risk for your hero in pursuing the antagonistic value?
- What are three progressive steps that show how each possible risk is increasingly in danger of coming to fruition?
- How does these sources of risk finally come to fruition?
Bring the tension between the gains and losses to a crisis point!
Both the wins and losses of pursuing a high-end career come to a major climax for all the characters involved. Priestly scores the ultimate professional coup by undermining an attempt to displace her but pays the ultimate personal price by suffering through yet another divorce. To make matters more complex, Priestly’s comeback plan expressly hinges on retracting Nigel’s promised promotion – thereby relegating him back to a thankless middleman position with scant hope of someday ascending the ranks. Meanwhile, Andy indulges a fantasy romance with her journalistic idol – only to discover his previously hidden cutthroat side that would preclude any sort of meaningful relationship. McKenna smartly brings every major character to a crisis point between irreversible professional gain and irreversible personal loss.
McKenna essentially puts Andy in a situation where she loses everything no matter which choice she makes: if Andy sticks with work, she is damned to the same lonely, morally corrupt life as Miranda; if Andy chooses to leave, however, she risks angering her associates and losing the chance to ever work in a journalistic capacity again. The climax essentially puts our hero between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between two outcomes of incredibly lasting consequence, forced to finally come down on one side or the other.
Now think back to the opening montage that contrasted Andy’s heart-filled world with her coworkers’ materialistic world; you should begin seeing how McKenna has used the discussed principles to make sure that every single scene builds upon this clear, initial struggle.
- How do both sides of your debate build to a huge crisis point?
- What final choice of irreversible lasting consequence must your hero make between the two values?
Match the thematic progression with visual progression
McKenna smartly underscores Andy’s entry into the high-stakes world of career-versus-humanity with evolving sets that match her emotional journey. Act I pretty much traps Andy in the imposing magazine office as she struggles to master the demanding specifics of her job. By Act II, Andy has begun proving her mettle as a worthy assistant and enters the realm of high-profile parties attended by society’s elite. Even more impressive, Andy attains keys to none other than Miranda’s family home. The transition from an impersonal office to an intimate household succinctly communicates just how far Andy has come in this world, not to mention just how high the stakes have increased: it’s one thing to make a mistake in an office, it’s a whole other thing to offend Miranda on her home turf!
By the time Act III rolls around, Andy has catapulted into a whole new world of professional gain – having both displaced the previous assistant as well as lost her beloved boyfriend, Andy suddenly finds herself navigating the glitz and glamour of Paris. Andy’s transformation has launched her into figuratively and literally foreign territory. The change in physical setting visually underscores how far Andy has come from her naïve first days on the job.
- What is the physical world of Act I? How does it reflect the beginning of your hero’s journey?
- How does the physical space change in Act II to reflect your hero’s evolution?
- How does the Act III space visually represent the entry into a brave new world unlike any before?
Desperate to have the audience “get it,” writers tend to make their heroes models of total virtue while their antagonists prove to be caricatures of complete villainy; writers will often bend over backwards to contrive situations that leave their main character blameless and unaccountable for any kind of bad behavior. These forced, cliché choices immediately lead you astray from the heart of your material because you’re so focused on forcing the audience to feel a certain way that you’re entirely neglecting the essentials of theme: recognizing the legitimacy of several opposing arguments, exploring how your hero and antagonist are exactly alike, showing the complexity of real-world decisions. Fortunately, brave movies like The Devil Wears Prada challenges viewers to see the humanity of its antagonists while identifying with the weaknesses of its heroes – raising the bar for aspiring writers everywhere to write bold and not conventional.