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The Art of Screenwriting: Adam McKay

Screenwriting is the beginning stage of any great television series or film. It’s a way to dive into cinema and television, allowing us to craft a story that comes from our inner psyche. Hence, looking at successful screenwriters is vital, with Adam McKay being an excellent example to analyze.

Adam McKay is an American screenwriter, director, comedian, and actor. McKay has a comedy partnership with Will Ferrell, with whom he co-wrote the films Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys. More recently, McKay reached acclaim with 2021’s Don’t Look Up and 2018’s Vice. With McKay in mind, here’s what we can learn from prolific screenwriter and filmmaker Adam McKay.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Comedies in a Time Where Comedies Aren’t Common

Although McKay hasn’t only been involved with a comedy, most of his work, especially his writing, is a comedy or has comedic elements. Most will assume if you have a working partnership with Will Ferrell, then you’re on the comedic side with what you’re making.

Even today, when a straightforward comedy isn’t typical in cinema, McKay continues to write successful comedies because it’s what he’s interested in. Though Don’t Look Up was polarizing in 2021, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Film Editing at the latest Academy Awards.

The Importance of Changing Tone

McKay firmly believes in changing tones in his film, even if most of it falls under a specific category. It’s a matter of focusing on it energy-wise and thinking about what it’ll do to the average audience. Is this scene meant to evoke comedy? Emotion? Sadness?

All of it comes down to knowing when you should push the right button on your writing and breaking down your genres. Nowadays, it’s okay to change the tone, as long it doesn’t feel out of place. Take a look at Vice, a film that covers a lot of serious subject matter while simultaneously having hilarious parts.

What Genre Are You Living In?

No matter how prolific or creative someone prides their writing, the challenge of knowing what to write next will come up sooner or later. A trick McKay uses is to analyze a genre you’re currently experiencing. Even if the specific genres don’t work well together, it’s a great way to develop the genre and story for your script.

Look at Don’t Look Up, a film that’s inspired by the recent political experience the U.S. is in. That’s not to say your script needs to be a political satire of the modern era. All it means is you should utilize what’s around you as inspiration; you never know what you might obtain from it.

How Does a Character End Up Where They Are?

Often, writers will develop characters without knowing the audience doesn’t fully grasp the characters as they do. It’s a reminder that every writer should put themselves in the audience's perspective, no matter how challenging. It becomes especially imperative with an antagonist or a hated character.

People forget a hero or villain isn’t born that way. Specific events have led them down that path, and it’s your job as a writer to highlight what happened. At least, that’s McKay’s approach to developing characters and is a commonality among the best writers.

Let the Funny Moments Happen

For whatever reason, many writers feel they need to rush to the end as fast as they can. It’s a general worry that their script won’t have enough conflict or action to satisfy those reading it. Every writer needs to realize that even the most serious film has at least a couple of funny moments.

McKay lets the funny moments happen, regardless of how funny his film is supposed to be. Nothing is forced but instead lets it naturally happen. It may sound odd considering the madness of some of McKay’s scripts (i.e., Anchorman). Regardless, it allows those layers to take the audience someplace special.

Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone

McKay is a prime example of a writer who isn’t afraid to step out of his comfort zone. No one would believe if you were to tell someone in 2004 that the Director of Anchorman would go on to make a political satire about Dick Cheney. It’s a significant highlight that every writer should step out of their comfort zone to expand and strengthen their writing.

My Favorite Adam McKay Scripts

Vice - The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that are still felt today.

The Big Short - In 2006-2007, a group of investors betted against the US mortgage market. In their research, they discover how flawed and corrupt the market is.

The Other Guys - Two mismatched New York City detectives seize an opportunity to step up like the city's top cops, whom they idolize, only things don't quite go as planned.


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