The Words on the Page

Elf

January 2, 2018

Happy 2018! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday break and is looking forward to the new year. Personally, I am shifting toward a new project, which means this will be the last weekly The Words on the Page blog. I'll still be reading plenty of scripts and look forward to discussing them, so please reach out with any you are reading and find interesting. Instead of simply saying goodbye, I decided to say see you later with a blog - Elf

 

 

 

Elf

David Berenbaum

Unspecified Script - Undated

Comedy - 88 pages

 

"That's ridiculous! There's no way parents could do that all in one night! And what about Santa's cookies!? I suppose parents eat them too?" - Buddy

 

Elf is a movie about the magic of Christmas and, right from the beginning, Berenbaum infuses magic into his script. Bookended by, well, a book, Berenbaum specifies that this book magically opens and closes itself. In a sense, no one is telling this story - it is just happening, and we are its witnesses.

 

Elf proved a very enjoyable read, certainly one of the fastest and most pleasant scripts I've seen, and three elements stood out: how everything was familiar but different, how transitions were used, and voice and tone on the page.

 

A book is, of course, familiar, but books don't normally open themselves. The next piece of familiarity comes in the description of Papa Elf - "540 years old or roughly 55 in human years." This sets up the comparison of an elf - the "different" - to what we are used to - "the normal," and the film draws much of its comedy from these moments. For example, an escalator is familiar to us, but not to Buddy, so when he gets on it he ends up doing a split as he initially puts only one foot on. Likewise, when he gets in an elevator, he doesn't turn around to face the door, angering the man with him he finds himself face-to-face. Without the shared normal, the differences wouldn't be funny. These are very simple moments, but they highlight how a tweak to an everyday thing can get a laugh.

 

Berenbaum was very free with his transitions, using many non-standard phrases to great effect. "QUICK CUT AWAY TO" was often used to reveal a visual punchline in a different location while "REVEAL" was used to show the visual punchline in a location we were already in. Although not standard, they are very easy to understand and quickly transmit all the necessary information as to what needs to be seen when and why. 

 

Similarly, the last action beat of many scenes is written in creative ways. An example from about halfway through the film when Buddy is alone at the dinner table with his younger brother Michael: Buddy burps "so loud and long, it's insane."

 

Buddy: Wow, did you hear that?

 

There's only one line left in the scene - an action line: "Yes, Michael did..." Again, I know where the camera needs to be focused, and I have a sense of Michael's reaction without it needed to be spelled out for me. I feel like I'm an active participant in the piece, as I'm being encouraged to picture it in my head. The sparseness of the script only contributes to the speed - and thereby excitement - with which I read it.

 

I think the main reason the script works so well is that Berenbaum has a very strong voice and his comedic tone permeates throughout. Everything is written with a little extra spark. Instead of simply telling us that Buddy's voice is echoing, he describes it - "Muffled like Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE." When Buddy throws snowballs, it's "a Nolan Ryan fastball every 1.5 seconds," and when Jovie kisses him, "Buddy's heart fills his whole chest." Each of these wordings are surprising-yet-recongizable, and I instantly understand. 

 

Still, Berenbaum knows when to back off and not really provide a description as whatever is visually imagined will likely be funnier than what is written on the page. Yet, he tells us these moments are humorous. After saying that Buddy "squeezes in like Harry Houdini" into an "ABSURDLY SMALL" elf bathroom, he intercuts the scene with Papa Elf outside of the door, leading to:

 

"The door finally creeks open, revealing a funny wide shot of him squeezed into this box of a room."

 

Although this is only on page eight of the script, I already trust Berenbaum as a writer. If he says this moment is funny, I believe him and picture it as such. Elf is a wonderful example of how a writer can get the audience on his side by providing a fun read. I'm not at all surprised that the movie was brought and made. If it's this much fun on the page, it can only be funnier fully realized.

 

Over the past year, I've gotten to study the voice and style of many writers, and I've noticed similarities between those writing in the same genre. Jokes in the action lines won't always be appropriate, but I think they're perfect for comedy. I'm definitely going to think about making the read fun the next time I'm working in this genre.

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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