Screenwriting Secrets in No Country for Old Men
When it comes to screenwriting, you can’t get much better than the Coen brothers They’ve been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original or Adapted Screenplay seven times, winning twice Once for Fargo, which I’ve already covered, and this gem of a film Here are seven screenwriting secrets in No Country for Old Men [MUSIC] Theme is what the story is about, what the writer is trying to say There’s usually a thematic question that’s answered by the end of the story In No Country for Old Men, there’s a question that Sheriff Bell wrestles with during the entire film Bell: Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun Can’t help but wonder how they’d have operated these times Let’s take a look at what we’re shown regarding the three components of today’s world Number one: It’s hard to comprehend Bell: The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure My god, Wendell It’s just all-out war I can’t think of any other word for it Who are these people? El Paso Sheriff: It’s just goddamn beyond everything What’s it mean? What’s it leading to? This is further symbolized by Anton Chigurh’s air tank Deputy: Sheriff, he had some sort of thing on him like an oxygen tank for emphysema Sheriff: Oxygen tank? What the hell’s he got that for? Deputy: You got me Man: What is that? Anton: I need you to step out of he car, sir Man: What is that for? Number two: You can’t see what’s coming Man: Well, we need to know what we’re calling it for here [GUNSHOT] [BIRD CAWS] Bell: Shoots out a little rod about that far into the brain Sucks right back in, animal never knows what hit him Chigurh: If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule? Woman: That’s who you keep looking out the window for? Moss: Just looking for what’s coming Woman: Yeah, but no one ever sees that Accountant: Are you going to shoot me? Anton: That depends Do you see me? Even Anton Chigurh himself can’t see what’s coming Notice how his light is green [CAR CRASH] And number three: The world is bigger than any one person Carson: You don’t have to do this I’m a day trader I’m a day trader Carla Jean: You don’t have to do this Chigurh: People always say the same thing Sheriff: It’s the dismal tide It is not the one thing Bell: Not the one thing Ellis: You can’t stop what’s coming It ain’t all waitin’ on you In the opening monologue by Sheriff Bell, he actually presents the two sides of the thematic argument: Bell: I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand A man would have to put his soul at hazard He’d have to say, “Okay I’ll be a part of this world.” So, if the thematic arguments are being a part of this violent world or refusing to be a part of it, Let’s see how the characters fall into these two camps First, we have the characters that easily participate When Llewellyn Moss encounters the drug deal gone wrong, he doesn’t hesitate in taking some firearms and a large sum of money Of course, we all know that Anton Chigurh has no problem whatsoever Now let’s look at the characters that refuse to be a part of the world We start the film with Sheriff Bell: Bell: I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand Wendell: What about yours? Bell: I’m hiding behind you Secretary: That DEA agent called again You don’t want to talk to him? Bell: I’m gonna try to keep from it as much as I can Call the police I’m not on their radio Then, we have Carla Jean: Carla Jean: Fine. I don’t wanna know I don’t even want to know where you been all day Chigurh: Call it Carla Jean: No I ain’t gonna call it Chigurh: Call it Carla Jean: The coin don’t have no say And even the sheriff from El Paso: Sheriff: If you’d have told me 20 years ago I’d see children walking the streets of our Texas towns with green hair, I just flat-out wouldn’t have believe it Curiously, we have a few characters that ride the fence, in that they both accept and refuse to be a part of this world First, we have the man at the gas station: Man: Well, I need to see about closing Chigurh: Just call it Man: We need to know what we’re calling it for here Chigurh: You stand to win everything Call it Man: Alright Heads, then The, we have Ellis He lives in decay, isolated from the outside world
And yet, he’s accepted how things are: Ellis: What you got ain’t nothing new This country is hard on people You can’t stop what’s coming It ain’t all waiting on you And, finally, we have Carson Wells, who knows exactly what he’s dealing with Carson: He’s a psychopathic killer, but so what? There’s plenty of them around You can’t make a deal with him You might even say he has principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that And yet, he tries to remove himself from the world when he’s caught Carson: I’m a day trader I could just go home Take you to an ATM. There’s 14 grand in it Everybody just walks away So, when you make the thematic arguments in your story, don’t forget to show it through the characters actions [MUSIC] There’s one thing in screenwriting that the Coen brothers seem to do better than most They use specific, not generic, details to make the story come to life It also makes the story world feel genuine and authentic First: they do it with people Bell: Jim Scarborough never carried one That’s the younger Jim Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one up in Comanche County Man killed Lamar’s deputy, took his car Moss: I’m gonna borrow a car from Roberto Bell: You know Charlie Walser’s got that place out east of Sanderson? What is it Torbert says about truth and justice? They also get specific with places Bell: Me and him was sheriffs at the same time Him up in Plano and me out here Man: We lived in Temple, Texas for many years Moss: In Odessa Carla Jean: Why would we go to Odessa? Why all the way to Del Rio? Moss: I want you to meet me at the Desert Sands Motel in El Paso Carson: I’m across the river at the Hotel Eagle Carson Wells Even when it comes to small businesses, look at how each place has a realistic name Phone: This is Roberto’s Automotive I’m not in right now. Please leave a message They even get specific with state penitentiaries Bell: There’s this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville here a while back That man that shot you died in prison? Ellis: Angola. Yeah And, finally, the Coen brothers get specific when it comes to things Bell: That look like about a ’77 Ford to you, Wendell? It’s the same tire tread coming back as going Made about the same time, too You can see the sipes real clear Wendell: What calibers you got there, Sheriff? Bell: 9 millimeter A couple .45 ACPs Moss: You got a pair of Larry Mahans, shoulder, size eleven? Man: Twelve-gauge. You need shells? Moss: yeah. Double-aught Bell: You know how they used to slaughter beefs, hit ’em right there with a maul? Ellis: She buried him the next morning, digging in that hard old caliche Here’s something else if you want to really convince the audience: It’s not enough just to say: Moss: Yeah, I was in ‘Nam Notice how specific Llewellyn gets here: Guard: What outfit? Moss: 12th Infantry Battalion August 7th, 1966. July 2nd, 1968 So, if you want your script to get through to people, don’t forget this valuable lesson [MUSIC] There’s a significant number of secondary characters in No Country for Old Men Since the Coen brothers are smart screenwriters, they know to make every single one of these characters serve the story Let’s take a look at each one and how they aid or impede the main characters Also notice how there’s no lack of conflict in most of the interactions First, we have the deputy He’s detained Anton Chigurh This serves the story by showing us the villain we’re up against Next, we have the man that Anton pulls over Besides having a car that Anton wants, this character also serves the theme because he asks what the air tank is for, and he doesn’t know what’s coming The wounded Mexican man in the truck causes Llewellyn to return with water, which propels the story into motion The man at the gas station allows Anton Chigurh to fully amplify the theme of the story The managerial types are no longer useful once Anton gets what he needs from them Loretta Bell loans her horse to her husband Even in a simple gesture as this, the Coen brothers know to infuse some conflict into it Loretta: Be careful Bell: Always am Loretta: Don’t get hurt Bell: Never do Loretta: Don’t hurt no one Wendell aids Sheriff Bell in the investigation, but he mainly acts as a shield for Ed Tom The woman in the trailer office impedes Anton from finding out where Llewellyn works Anton:Where does he work? Woman: Did you not hear me? We can’t give out no information The motel manager gives Llewellyn the room he needs, but not without some resistance Manager: You pick the option that goes with the applicable rate When Anton Chigurh calls Carla Jean’s mother, notice how there’s plenty of conflict in their simple conversation Mother: Now why would I expect him?
Who is this? The clothing store owner aids Llewellyn with boots and clothing The taxi driver brings Llewellyn back to the motel Notice how there’s conflict here as well Driver: I don’t wanna get into some kind of jackpot here buddy Why don’t I just set you down right here and we won’t argue about it? Moss: Take me to another motel Even a waitress gives Sheriff Bell an emotional boost Maureen: Freshen that there for you, Sheriff? Bell: Yeah, Maureen, you better had The first employee at Tina’s Range Gear helps Llewelyn obtain a new shotgun and shells The second employee provides amusing conflict about something else Llewelyn needs Man: You give me the model number on the tent, I can order you the poles Moss: Never mind. I want a tent Man: Well, what kind of tent? Moss: The kind with the most poles A civilian doesn’t agree with Llewelyn’s actions Man: You shouldn’t be doing that Moss: Doing what? Man: Hitchhiking Carson’s employer gives him the necessary funds for his mission to hunt down Anton Chigurh Llewelyn needs the desk clerk at the Eagle Hotel for this purpose: Moss: Just call me if anyone else checks in tonight And, by anyone, I mean any swinging dick The three young men at the U.S. border provide Llewelyn with a coat and a beer that help him cross into Mexico Llewelyn needs the Norteño band to take him to the hospital Sheriff Bell’s secretary acts as another shield for him as he asks her to do this: Bell: Can I get you to call Loretta for me, tell her I’m going down to Odessa to see Carla Jean Moss? Secretary: Do you want me to wait until you quit the building? Bell: Uh-huh The hunter with deer carcasses provides Ed Tom with the kind of simple infraction he understands and can deal with The Border Patrol agent decides whether or not to allow Llewelyn to enter the United States The accountant serves this purpose: Anton needs to know something Anton: He gave the Mexicans a receiver Accountant: He felt that the more people looking — Anton: That’s foolish This drug cartel member ultimately finds out that Llewelyn will be at the Desert Sands Motel, bringing about his demise Anton needs some new information, so he gets it from this man: Anton: What airport would you use? He also takes his truck In this amusing scene, the woman by the pool challenges Llewelyn’s fidelity Woman: I got beers in my room Moss: No, ma’am. I know what beer leads to The sheriff from Del Rio reinforces the theme and Ed Tom’s refusal to accept today’s world Sheriff: It’s the dismal tide It is not the one thing Bell: Not the one thing However, Ellis provides him with some answers and the truth Ellis: What you got ain’t nothing new This country’s hard on people And, in the end, even teenagers on bikes have something that Anton needs What would you take for the shirt? So don’t forget: Even the most minor character should serve the story in some way [MUSIC] When it comes to filmmaking, the Coen brothers are masters of visual storytelling They respect the audience and allow us to assemble the pieces of the puzzle for ourselves Here are some examples: Llewelyn encounters a wounded man that begs for water so when he goes back to so, when he goes back to give him some, what does this tell us? When Llewelyn leaves his motel room with the drapes completely closed, do they need to tell us what’s going on here? When Anton hunts Llewelyn in the Regal Motel, look at how the arena is laid out for us Sheriff Bell sees this: so he knows exactly what this means And, when he sees this on the ground, we know exactly who’s been there Knowing what we know of Anton Chigurh’s violent ways, we can easily infer what happened to this man Anton: Can you get those chicken crates out of the bed? Man: What are you talking about? And when we see this: it allows us to deduce what happened to Carla Jean Involve the audience in creating the story experience and they’ll stay with you for the entire ride [PERCUSSION] In No Country for Old Men, there’s another aspect of “show, don’t tell” The Coen brothers show us not to underestimate the importance of sound in a screenplay Look at how much storytelling occurs through sound [TIRE POPS AND HISSES] [INTERMITTENT BEEPING] [BEEPS MORE FREQUENTLY] [BEEPS LESS FREQUENTLY] [GUNFIRE] In the Eagle Hotel, Llewelyn might not know who it is, but we certainly do [SILENCED GUNSHOT] [BEEPING] [FOOTSTEPS] The sound here tells us who Llewelyn is calling: [PHONE RINGS IN LOBBY]
And this sound tells us what Anton did to the light: [SCREWING SOUND] When Sheriff Bell approaches the Desert Sands Motel, we hear what’s going on before we see it [MACHINE GUN FIRE] So, when it comes to the craft of storytelling, don’t forget to add sound to your toolbox [MUSIC] As we’ve seen several times in other films, true character is best revealed through action Let’s take a look at the two protagonists that participate in the world of this story in opposite ways First, we have Llewelyn Moss Late in the movie, he says this: Guard: You in the service? Moss: No, sir, I’m a veteran Guard: ‘Nam? Moss: Yes, sir. Two tours However, by this point we’ve already figured out that he has military and firearm experience through these actions: And we also know that he’s no stranger to shady operations Moss: Where’s the last guy? Ultimo hombre. Last man standing There must have been one The courthouse opens nine hours from now Someone’s gonna be calling in the vehicle number on the inspection plate on my truck Around 9:30 they’ll show up here Now let’s look at Sheriff Bell, who doesn’t participate in this world in the same way Bell: You ride Winston Anything happens to Loretta’s horse out here I can tell you right now I don’t want to be the party that was aboard Bell: Gun out and up Wendell: What about yours? Bell: I’m hiding behind you Can I get you to call the Loretta for me, tell her I’m going to Odessa to see Carla Jean Moss? Secretary: Do you want me to wait till you quit the building? Bell: Uh-huh Don’t wanna lie without what is absolutely necessary Rangers and the DEA are headed back out to the scene this morning You gonna join ’em? Bell: Any new bodies accumulate out there? Wendell: No, sir Bell: Well, then, I guess I can skip it Secretary: That DEA agent called again You don’t wanna talk to him? Bell: I’m gonna try to keep from it as much as it can And, yet, look how eagerly he tackles something that he’s familiar with: Bell: Now what the hell? [POLICE SIREN] Bell: You looked at your load lately? That is a damn outrage Man: You gonna write me up for improperly secured load on me? Bell: You get your ass out of here He also has manners Whereas Anton Chigurh drinks the milk straight out of the bottle, Sheriff Bell gets a glass He removes his hat when he talks to Carla Jean He also does so out of respect for the dead Conversely, we also get his view on Mexican people: Bell: Supposedly a coyote won’t eat a Mexican Secretary: Do you want me see what I can find out about the Mexican ones? Bell: Oh, Lord, no Wendell: None of the three had ID on ’em But they tell me that all three’s Mexicans You wanna drive out there? Bell: No, it’s all I had to look for and it sounds like these old boys died of natural causes So remember: The audience doesn’t want to know your characters through lazy lines of dialogue Let them reveal their true character through their actions [MUSIC] The Coen brothers are masters of dialogue because of two simple things: First, they always make dialogue realistic to the story world In this case: West Texas Manager: Sir, I ain’t at liberty to give out no information about our residents Bell: Wasn’t no bullet? Wendell: Yes, sir. Wasn’t none Manager: Number 137. It ain’t took Bell: How many bodies did you leave with? Man: I ain’t lost none of ’em, Sheriff Man: You want someplace specific, you might could be better off just driving to Dallas And second, they make sure the dialogue is unique to each character Man 1: Mind ridin’ “bitch”? Man 2: These are some ripe petunias Wendell: Oh, hell’s bells They even shot the dog I believe they done lit a shuck
Carla Jean: Where’d you get the pistol? Moss: At the gettin’ place Just call me if anyone else checks in tonight And, by anyone, I mean any swingin’ dick Carla Jean: Llewelyn, I ain’t gonna leave you in the lurch Mother: I got the cancer Three years ago I pre-visioned it Woman: Hey, Mister Sporting Goods Beer! That’s what’s coming I’ll bring the ice chest out here. You can stay married Teenager: Are you all right? You got a bone sticking out your arm Look at that fucking bone So, the lesson here: Make your dialogue sparkle by making it unique to the characters and to the world they inhabit Hi. I’m Daniel Lee, creator of Script Sleuth First, and foremost, I want to thank my patrons for supporting me on Patreon Your generosity helps me keep the channel going If you’re not a member yet, go to Patreon.com/ScriptSleuth to get early access to videos, exclusive content not available to the public, and vote on films to cover next Also, be sure to subscribe and tap the bell to be notified of upcoming videos Thank you so much for watching