Publishing screenplays for public consumption isn’t entirely unheard of, particularly for mega-budget Hollywood fare and older classics, but it’s still a tragically rare occurrence. Fortunately, a promising new player has joined this sadly sparse field: A24. The film distributor has started releasing key entries from their catalog as screenplay books, and at $60 a pop, they’re definitely swanky.
The newest addition to A24’s screenplay book lineup showcases Ari Aster’s wave-making 2018 feature debut Hereditary, which joins previous releases Moonlight, The Witch, and Ex Machina.
Beyond Aster’s words, there are some delightful bonuses. Oscar-winning filmmaker and international cinematic treasure Bong Joon Ho (Parasite) opens the volume with a forward that radiates his trademark brand of good-humored despair. Key quote: “The film is ostensibly about the hell that a family suffers as generation after generation is swallowed by a demon, but it’s actually saying that family itself (or ties defined by blood) is hell.”
The volume also throws in a short personal essay from novelist Leslie Jamison (The Gin Closet, The Empathy Exams), and a shot list breaking down Hereditary’s seance scene. Additionally, a set of twenty-four glossy double-page spreads explore highlights from Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography, complete with time stamps. However, in a couple of centered close-ups, the gutter of the book makes Alex Wolff’s face looks a smidge disfigured. Such is the peril of double-page spreads.
Even with all the cool bonus features there to help convince fans that the book is worth the investment, the real star of the show remains Aster’s excellently written screenplay. Reading the screenplay of a film you admire brings the same enjoyment as watching a great behind the scenes feature (or reading an installment of Meg Shields’ excellent How’d They Do That? column). It’s not just a rehash of what you already know but an experience that provides new insight into what makes that thing you love great, enabling you to appreciate it even further.
The Hereditary script is a superb example, for instance, of how to use visual detail in a screenplay. Much of what makes the film a deeply unsettling masterwork of horror comes through on the page. Toni Collette’s performance as unraveling, grief-stricken mother Annie Graham is rightfully lauded, but reading Aster’s screenplay gives a much clearer picture of the sort of stunning skill her portrayal entails. She realizes a very specifically written character who represents, in terms of difficulty, the acting equivalent of a double black diamond ski trail.
Look at the scene that comes late in the film in which Annie sleepwalks into teenage son Peter’s bedroom, waking him. He asks her what she’s doing, snapping her out of her trance. At first confused and apologetic, her attitude suddenly shifts. Alluding to the elephant in the room of younger sister Charlie’s death, Peter asks, “Why are you scared of me?”
“What?” Annie says. And then, after a pause: “I never wanted to be your mother.”
The screenplay provides indications of how, while writing the scene, Aster had pictured this quietly explosive moment playing out on screen. The description between Annie’s initial “What?” and her confession reads: “Annie’s expression pleads, ‘How could you ask me that?’ But Peter just stares back at her. Annie’s attitude suddenly TURNS — from defensive to confessional.”
When reading an undeveloped screenplay for consideration, this is the kind of scene that might give pause, not because it’s not a great scene but because it’s the sort of scene that depends on a top-tier performance to function. Anything less and the key subtext won’t come across, and the scene won’t work. Collette doesn’t just pull off this “turn” with flying colors; she also manifests scores of other similarly crucial yet extremely tricky bits of screenplay-specified subtext.
While the insights you gain by reading a screenplay vary widely from film to film, a nearly universal takeaway is a deeper understanding of what elements really bring the magic to the finished product. Going through the Hereditary screenplay, for instance, and realizing the specificity with which Collette manages to bring Aster’s vision to life makes her performance all the more impressive to watch. That is reason enough to pick up a copy of A24’s book.
Of course, the book also just looks really pretty and announces your film nerd cred while sitting on your coffee table — or whatever flat surface you might have available.