Dan O’Bannon‘s Guide to Screenplay Structure
By Dan O’Bannon with Matt R. Lohr
Foreword by Roger Corman, Afterword by Diane O’Bannon
Michael Wiese Productions, 2013
264 pgs; Trade Paperback
Dan O’Bannon should be a household name to anyone that has seen a film in the last thirty-odd years. Sadly, this is not the case, but many of the films that he either wrote, co-wrote, or directed certainly are: Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, Dark Star, Total Recall, The Resurrected. These are but a few examples of a uniquely creative mind; a mind that was not only exceptional intellectually, but also willing to challenge, to experiment, to push boundaries artistically.
In their new book, Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure, O’Bannon and Lohr have set out to document the process and the rationale behind why screenplays that work make a satisfying and successful film (irrespective of whether or not they are a blockbuster financially), while others simply don’t. During that analysis, the duo explore many classic works, and O’Bannon gives much in the way of “behind-the-scenes” insight about the Hollywood mindset. As he points out in his Introduction, O’Bannon’s chief concern here is not to overcomplicate the situation, but rather to educate writers about a simple, yet powerful, set of principles that he discovered by way of his own personal search for the reasons behind successful cinematic efforts. It is not a book of “do’s and don’t’s,” or a set of rules to follow that will guarantee success at the box office (as a collaborative institution, filmmaking is too difficult a process to document the reasons brilliant ideas fail, while inane movies become top grossers), nor is it a book designed to teach screenplay formatting and etiquette.
Instead, this book is about one thing: structure, and why a certain story structure has revealed itself to be not only the gold standard for cinema, but also a useful story-propelling engine. Granted, one must have ideas for plots and characters, but with those elements in place, the next step is the structure at the core of the story. Here is where the magic of the book comes to the fore, and the authors do a great job of not only laying down who the major educators in the screenwriting field are, but documenting why the O’Bannon approach is at once similar in some aspects (such as the methodologies promoted by Robert McKee and Syd Field), yet also superior. It is worth noting that, while these authors have all contributed works of varying usefulness and skill, no one has ever written a book like this, as none of these other writers/educators has had the track record of Dan O’Bannon (compare the filmography in this book with the others, if they even have one in theirs!).
With a thoughtful Foreword from the influential director Roger Corman, O’Bannon and Lohr deliver the goods. Written in an accessible, engaging style, the book is dryly amusing, fascinating, and easy to read. For the hardcore scripting and analysis set, there are multiple opportunities (by way of written exercises) to stretch-out their reasoning skills, as well chances to flesh out their own personal ideas and stories. Here the tome excels, and it will likely be the foundation of a series of classes taught by the co-author.
Unfortunately, O’Bannon passed away before he could see his vision of this book come to fruition; Lohr, along with Mrs. O’Bannon, have given the world a gift by shepherding this important and valuable contribution to the history and theory of cinema to the public. It is among the finest books on this topic I have read (no small number, including all the ones so expertly critiqued in this volume), and I feel certain that many will feel the same way; I can easily imagine this becoming required reading at film schools all over the world, which is as fitting a legacy as any creator can strive for: To be remembered, and to help others in the process. Highly recommended.
—Jason V Brock