There’s tons of screenwriting books out there, but how many are written by anyone that’s actually been successful in Hollywood? Well now we have Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure from Michael Wiese Productions. O’Bannon, who passed away in 2009, was the screenwriter of ‘Alien’, ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Return of the Living Dead’, and this book is the culmination of over three decades of work and study.
We have this book out in the world thanks to the efforts of Dan’s widow, Diane, and Matt Lohr, who O’Bannon mentored when he was in college. As Lohr explains, “I was a grad student at Chapman University. I was in my second year of the screenwriting program, and Dan was the school’s filmmaker in residence. Every year, a master filmmaker comes in and teaches master classes. I found out Dan was working on a book about screenwriting and he was looking for a graduate student to help him.”
What’s especially cool about this screenwriting guide is that it’s written from the point of view of someone who knows sci-fi and horror, which also makes it unique. As Diane explains, “Dan came across a lot of this stuff very naturally, but he would ask, ‘Why does ‘Alien’ work, and why am I having trouble with this other concept? How can I get the same effect of ramping it up? He gradually stumbled upon these things that worked well.”
Yet unlike a lot of screenwriting guides that have stodgy adherences to rules and “principals,” O’Bannon always felt that rules kill a screenplay, and this is more of a guide on how to build a script that holds up from the ground up. “There’s a big difference between, ‘It’s a good idea to do this here,’ and ‘You have to do this here,’” Lohr says. “This book tells you that the most effective stories do it like this.”
Lohr states that one of the most important things he learned from O’Bannon was that he never let anyone regard him as “just” a science fiction writer, or “just” a guy who wrote horror films. “To Dan, they weren’t “just” anything, they were essential story experiences. You could be writing a low budget creature feature that’s going out on Redbox before it hits any theater, but you owe it to yourself and your audience to write the best $15,000 Redbox creature feature you can every time out.”
“Dan elevated a genre through his respect for it,” Lohr continues. “I always thought it was ironic that Dan died the morning ‘Avatar’ came out. ‘Avatar’ went on to become a best picture nominee at the Academy Awards, and if there was no Dan O’Bannon, then ‘Avatar’ wouldn’t have gotten nominated. Dan elevated a genre through his respect for it, and he elevated it in the eyes of others so they could say, ‘Yes, this movie has spaceships, monsters and aliens, and it’s one of the best pictures of the year.’ It wasn’t ‘just’ a science fiction movie anymore.”