Framing Scenes for Maximum Impact – Lessons from BEGINNERS

Framing scenes in BEGINNERS starring Ewan McGregor


Fertile stories and multi-faceted characters will only take a script so far if the writer cannot repeatedly craft memorable and compelling framing scenes. Industrial Scripts looks at Ewan McGregor starrer BEGINNERS for inspiration in making scenes stand out.

Writer-Director Mike Mills (no, not the bass player from R.E.M) is constantly framing scenes in ‘bits’ – quirky limitations or games played by characters which differentiate potentially clichéd scenes with the unique particulars of these players.

BEGINNERS tells the story of relationship short-termer Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer whose father died shortly after coming out of the closet after 45 years of marriage. Just as his father was a beginner in the gay scene, so too is Oliver a beginner in long-lasting love… when he meets actress Anna (Melanie Laurent). Any love story has archetypal beats to encounter; the key is to inject them with a fresh vitality…

1) Boy Has a Past – The Sketches
Backstory and ghost are key to understanding a character’s psychological barriers to love; in BEGINNERS Oliver sketches the women from his past relationships – this is the perfect marriage of his vocation (graphic designer) and his romantic character trait (many short term relationships). No need to complain to a best-friend figure, no flashbacks or montages – simple visual telling in fitting with his career.

2) Boy Meets Girl – The Costume Party
After his father’s death Oliver has lost his joy; depressed, he attends a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud – representing his own overly analytical and introverted nature. He meets Anna, and the pair play out a ‘bit’ – he analyses her on the couch. Only she’s lost her voice, and can only communicate via a notepad. After dancing, the pair pull off their wigs to reveal their true selves; as with all first meetings, we only see an untrue façade of the love interest – it is not until both parties agree to delve deeper that the truth can begin to emerge. Compare this to the usual ‘their eyes meet across a bar’ introduction. The notepad of course comes in handy when exchanging phone numbers…

3) Boy and Girl Flirt – The Silent Chat
Intrigued by each other, the pair must test their romantic feelings. Anna calls Oliver – only she cannot speak! And so she communicates in elusive beeps by keying her phone-pad. The emphasis shifts to Oliver to propel conversation.

4) Boy and Girl Bond – Ask Me Anything
Love stories begin with isolated individuals who eventually open up on the road to coupledom. A key process is bonding; here Anna senses Oliver’s mistrust of relationships and offers a bonding device suited to his needs – she’s says that he can ask her anything.

5) Boy and Girl Dig Deeper – Actor’s Sad Stories
Browsing a book store, the pair read biographies of famous actors, observing that so many had such sad real life stories; a pleasant date reveals an uncomfortable truth, as the obvious parallel to Anna’s life is inferred by the audience. Rather than an on-the-nose confession, the film allows exposition to come out in unique fashion. It may be incredibly simple – reading a book on similar subject matter – but its concise power belies its simplicity and is overall framing the scene.

6) Boy and Girl Reveal Darkest Secrets – Role Play
Anna has a fraught relationship with her father and ignores his phone calls. Anna switches things up with Oliver – he’ll pretend to be her on the phone, and she’ll pretend to be her father; the game reveals his suicide attempts and emotional dependence on a fragile daughter. Again, dramatising exposition with a framing scenes device.

Do It Differently

Every genre has story beats shared across a multitude of films – the moment the naïve innocent first comes under attack in a thriller or the moment dumb teens venture into the killer’s territory in a horror . To tell your story you may have to go through seemingly tired story routes – but you have the power to invest the scenes of that journey with breath-taking originality. No more dates at restaurant tables (ROCKY took us to an ice-rink) and no more teens sneaking into the woods to have sex (a pop-quiz game of life and death opened SCREAM). If you do the ‘standard scene’ – they meet at a bar – make sure the details of the characters define the scenes – George Clooney and Vera Farmiga comparing loyalty cards in UP IN THE AIR.

If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our article: “The Same, but Different” – Screenwriting Tips?

– What did you think of this article? Give it a rating and let us know your thoughts in the comments box further down…

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Industrial Scripts

Industrial Scripts

Founded in early 2010, Industrial Scripts is now one of the world’s leading screenwriting companies, with close links to industry and over 1,000 verified testimonials from its global client base.

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