Chekhov’s Gun: The Brilliant Films of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov uttered those words nearly a century ago, and in my opinion, there is truly nothing better in the world of cinema than watching a great movie that is absolutely cohesive and unified in all of its elements — nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary.

Let’s rewind a couple of years. 2007. I had just seen Hot Fuzz. My friends, like most people, were all talking about how funny it was and how epic the final act was. My first thought? How incredibly tight the script was. Yes, in my estimation, Hot Fuzz is perhaps the perfect example of what Chekhov was talking about all those years ago.

I recently went back and re-watched both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg), and no matter how many times I watch these movies, I am still blown away by the total completeness of their scripts. Nearly every single prop — and more impressively, nearly every single line of dialogue — becomes an important piece of information later in the movie. There are rarely any one-off jokes in either film — everything comes back a second time, and it is hilarious, glorious, and really awesome.

Nothing wasted, nothing unnecessary.

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead. Great movie.

Shaun of the Dead. Great movie.

The most obvious (and blatant) use of the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle is the Winchester rifle that is hanging behind the bar in The Winchester Pub. During the first act, Shaun and Ed argue about whether the gun is real (as an extension of their argument as to whether or not the bartender is in the Mafia, when Ed is making up sordid back stories for the pub patrons). We get our answer during the third act, of course, when the gang is desperate for weapons and ends up using the very real gun to fend off the zombie horde.

Other recurring elements include:

  • “You’ve got red on you.” The first couple of times the line is said it’s about red ink. Later, it’s zombie blood.
  • The flowers for Shaun’s mother. When Shaun tosses them in the trash outside The Winchester after splitting up with Liz, you assume that’s the last we’d see of the flowers. Not in this film, however, as Shaun’s mother ends up finding her flowers as the group enters the pub.
  • Shaun and Ed playing the game Timesplitters together. Even when not playing multiplayer, the two work as a cohesive unit, providing advice as to where to look (“top left!”), when to reload, etc. This dynamic returns during the shootout in the pub, when Shaun asks for somebody to simplify the directions being given to him.
  • Ed’s penchant for not closing the front door. The first couple of times it is mentioned, it’s to point out how terrible of a roommate Ed is. Of course, how do the zombies get into their home? Because Ed left the door open.
  • Ed adding to an emotional scene by saying “I’m sorry” — followed by the admission that it’s because he just let loose a nasty fart.
  • The jukebox always being stuck on random.

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz. Great movie.

Hot Fuzz. Great movie.

When penning this script for Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg pulled out all of the stops. Just like in Shaun of the Dead, they’ve included a really obvious example — this time, it’s a pair of swords hanging on the lobby wall of Angel’s hotel. While it’s not as blatantly pointed out as the Winchester rifle in the pub (it’s almost a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment), the fact of the matter is, during the final shootout sequence, what type of weapon does the hotel manager use against Angel? If you guessed a sword, you’re right.

Other recurring elements include:

  • When asking what’s it like to be a big city cop, Danny asks Angel if he has ever shot two guns at the same time, shot a gun while jumping in the air, shot a gun during a car chase, etc. Naturally, all of these things happen to Danny and Angel during the climax of the film.
  • When questioning Angel’s insistence of wearing body armour, his fellow officers tell him that “nobody’s going to stab you … not a member of the public, anyway.” It should come as no surprise then that when Angel does get stabbed, it’s by his partner, Danny.
  • The Andys warn Angel that “everybody and their mom is packing around here”, including farmers and farmers’ moms. Not only does everybody in town whip out pistols and rifles during the final showdown, but the very first person to point a gun at Angel is, of course, a farmer’s mom.
  • When Angel meets the members of the NWA for the first time, one of them comments on his police background, saying, “I hear you’re quite the marksman. Perhaps you’d like to join us for a shoot one day?” How prophetic.
  • Similar to a scene in Shaun of the Dead, Danny makes up crazy back stories for the people they drive past along the main street. About one man, Angel asks why he’s wearing such a big coat. Danny says it’s because “he’s hiding something.” We’ll find out in the third act that he’s been hiding a gun underneath his coat the entire time.
  • The Andys ask Angel if he wants them to interrogate every person in the phone book, starting with Aaron A. Aaronson. It’s not just a sarcastic joke, however. Near the end of the movie, Angel has a brief run-in with a kid by the name of Aaron A. Aaronson.
  • The Point Break / Bad Boys references.
  • Danny’s fake blood / exploding ketchup packet trick.
  • The missing swan.
  • The use of the weapons confiscated from the old man’s barn.

I’m sure if somebody were to watch the movie while making a detailed checklist, they would find that damn near everything mentioned or shown in the first half of Hot Fuzz comes back again during the second half — it’s that comprehensive, and as I said before, damn impressive.

With movies like these, I can’t help but smile. They are very well crafted, extremely funny, and quite simply a joy to watch. Well done, Wright and Pegg. I can’t wait to see how your next movie turns out.

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Winston Zeddemore: The Unnecessary Ghostbuster

Having recently re-watched both of the Ghostbuster flicks, I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Winston Zeddemore serves absolutely no purpose in either movie. His character is completely and utterly unnecessary, useless, and pointless.

I can already detect the furious typing of hundreds of irate Ghostbuster disciples, eager to provide me with a digital tongue-lashing for daring to even suggest such a thing. “Winston 4 Life”, they’ll say. “He’s just as important to the team as Ray, Peter, and Egon”, they’ll say.

But the thing is, he’s not. He’s not important in the slightest. Let me explain:

The protagonists of the films are Peter, Ray, and Egon (with Peter being the true main character of the bunch, seeing as how he’s the one with the love story). When Winston shows up halfway through Ghostbusters, the audience has already grown attached to the “big three”, and as a result, Winston’s arrival hardly even registers. He’s just some guy they hired off the street. We don’t know anything about his background, his motivation (besides money), or his goals and dreams to really give a damn about anything he does. He is the “fifth wheel” of the Ghostbusters.

These are the main characters of the film. Note the distinct lack of Winston in this image.

These are the main characters of the film. Note the distinct lack of Winston in this image.

The fact that Winston isn’t given enough screen time to really flesh out his character or capture our attention certainly doesn’t help his cause. Yes, if Eddie Murphy had accepted the role, Winston would have come in much earlier into the script and played a much larger role in the overall story. But as history shows, Murphy declined, and for whatever reason, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis still left the character in the movie, albeit in a severely reduced role.

But really, what’s the point? Why not get rid of Winston entirely if he’s not going to be used to his fullest? After all, one less major actor means one less expense for the producers to consider when greenlighting the project, right?

Well, I’ve done some reading, and I’ve come across two primary reasons as to why people believe Winston is still an important factor in the movies. Unfortunately for the people who believe in these arguments, I will counter each one with brutal precision and extreme prejudice:

Argument #1: Winston is the “Everyman”

The most prevalent argument for Winston’s existence is that he’s supposed to be the “everyman” — the blue collar ordinary guy — to provide contrast to the egghead university professors that are Egon, Peter, and Ray. After all, Venkman has doctorates in both Psychology and Parapsychology and has never worked anywhere but on campus — I doubt many moviegoers can say the same. Winston is supposed to be the normal dude that the audience can relate to amidst all of the wackiness.

But guess what? That’s not how it was in the original script, where Winston is some sort of ex-military weapons expert:

STANTZ
Very impressive resume. Electronic
counter measures, Strategic Air Command …
Black belt in Karate … Small arms expert …

Does that sound like an “everyman” to you? From this description, Winston’s not exactly the type of guy you’d find behind the counter at Burger King. Just because he doesn’t necessarily believe in the paranormal (at first) doesn’t make him an “ordinary guy”.

The “everyman” argument also falls apart because, in my opinion, Ray Stantz already held that position long before Winston arrived on the scene.

Who needs Winston when you already have Ray?

Who needs Winston when you already have Ray?

Unlike Egon (who is hyper-intelligent and emotionally sterile) and Peter (who is a bitter, sarcastic charlatan), Ray is just a normal, decent, and caring guy who happens to be a little OCD when it comes to the paranormal. In fact, it’s Ray’s child-like enthusiasm for catching ghosts that makes him the true “everyman” of the team.

After all, who was the main audience for the two movies? Who made Ghostbusters a true sensation? That’s right, kids. The way Ray reacts when the Scoleri Brothers emerge, for example, is a direct parallel to the way kids watch the movie. They, like Ray, think that ghosts are cool, neat, fun, and awe-inspiring.

So, remind me … why we do we need Winston again?

Argument #2: Winston Provides Crucial Elements of the Story

It is also argued that without Winston, the Ghostbusters would still be in jail (and New York destroyed by Gozer, naturally) because he’s the only one that can cut through the bullshit and convince the mayor that some real bad stuff is about to go down. Others will say that he’s the one the really sets the mood and tone for the last act of the movie when he discusses the Bible with Ray.

Both are valid points. His character does indeed mention those things, I won’t argue that. But I will argue this — is it at all necessary for Winston Zeddemore to be the vessel for these plotpoints? If Winston’s sole purpose in the entire movie is to say that he “likes Jesus’ style” and tell the mayor he’s “seen shit that will turn you white”, well, that doesn’t really make him a very useful character, now does it?

Alternate Scenario A:
The Ghostbusters HQ is swamped with calls. During a brief break when she’s not on the phone, Janine asks Ray or Peter if they’ve read the Bible — in specific, the passages pertaining to the end of times — and states that it might be the reason they’ve been so busy lately.

See how easy it is to get rid of Winston? The exact same point is made, and as an added bonus, we’ve added some new elements to the character of Janine.

Alternate Scenario B:
After being arrested, the Ghostbusters are being lectured by the mayor and Walter Peck. The mayor questions why he should let them go, but the Ghostbusters can only respond with technospeak and gibberish about Gozer and Sumerians. Cut to a crowd of people outside the building — previous customers of the Ghostbusters, rallying in support of the team. Somebody is holding a sign the reads: “I believe.” Another person shouts for the Ghostbusters to save the city like they saved them, etc. Eventually the mayor is convinced to give the guys one last shot.

Okay, so that example isn’t as good as the first, but it still shows that the same point can be effectively made without the use of Winston. Perhaps it doesn’t produce a classic line of dialogue, but it still shows that ordinary people now believe in ghosts — and more importantly, in the Ghostbusters.

Sorry, but your services aren't needed here. Now hit the streets, you bum.

Sorry, but your services aren't needed here. Now hit the streets, you bum.

If you dissolve Winston’s role and divide his lines and character traits (as limited as they are) among the other characters, nothing would be lost and nothing would be missed. Doing so would not only help flesh out some of the minor characters in greater detail, but it would also tighten the script somewhat by keeping the main story focused on Peter, Egon, and Ray. You know, the true protagonists of the films — the real Ghostbusters.

If anybody wants to prove me wrong and state the case for Winston Zeddemore’s existence, drop me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

The Flawed Script of Gran Torino

Yeah, yeah, I know … Gran Torino came out a couple months ago, and in terms of the Internet, that’s like a billion years and therefore it’s no longer a film that is worthy of discussion. Well, screw you all. I didn’t have a blog back then, and I’ve gotta get this off my chest.

First off, let me say that I thought Gran Torino was a pretty good movie. Not the best movie of all time, but it certainly didn’t suck, and I left the theatre feeling as though I got my money’s worth.

However, while watching the film, I couldn’t help but notice how unbelievably awkward the script was at certain points. Unecessary dialogue, blatantly loaded exposition … all sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Being somewhat of an aspiring screenwriter, I decided to check out the script (written by Nick Schenk) to see if it was actually as rough as the movie itself made it out to be.

And that’s when I discovered that the script for Gran Torino is a giant pile of turds.

"Get off my lawn."

"Get off my lawn."

I sat there stunned as I read Schenk’s script, bewildered by the number of rules he breaks within the first few pages alone. Seems the dude has a bit of a problem with telling instead of showing. And when I say a bit of a problem, I actually mean a huge friggin’ problem.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

From the very first page, when we first meet Walt:

Walt Kowalski looks young for his age. He has slate blue
eyes, physically fit and has had the same buzz cut
hairstyle since getting out of the military in 1953.

Okay, the first couple of lines check out, but … excuse me? Just by looking at him, we can tell that he’s been out of the military since 1953? How the hell is that even possible?

I think this passage could have been improved simply by saying that Walt was in his in his seventies (but looked young for his age) and had a military buzz cut as though he had worn it his entire life.

See? Simple. It tells the reader that Walt is undeniably a military man, but without providing random dates and facts that cannot possibly be discerned from our very first look at the man in the very first scene in the movie.

Perhaps the worst example of Schenk’s “telling” is on the fifth page, when Walt lays eyes on his Hmong neighbours:

Next door to Walt’s house some sort of party is going on.
Walt can see through the window that the living room is
jammed with at least forty people, all Asians, all Hmong.

And this is a problem for Walt, because Walt is a full-
blown, unrepentant racist.

Walt lights a cigarette and speaks to his dog, Daisy.

WALT
Jesus Christ, how many swamp rats
can they cram into a living room?

Walt spits in the snow and walks back to the garage.

Now tell me … just what in the fuck is the sentence “And that is a problem for Walt, because Walt is a full-blown, unrepentant racist” doing in the goddamn script? There’s absolutely no reason to include this line! None whatsoever! Especially when we get a glimpse of Walt’s racism from his dialogue in that very same scene! It’s “show, don’t tell” … not “tell and then show”.

Want some more? Let’s roll:

The Gran Torino is in mint condition. It has been babied
since the day it rolled off the line.

Walt goes in the back door and a moment later the kitchen
light comes on. The Gran Torino remains in the driveway.

It’s a challenge, an invitation. Walt is daring the
thief to come back. And Walt’s ready this time.

What does that even mean? How is he ready? Is he sneering, face tense, scanning the night like a hawk while clutching his rifle? Show me, dammit!

It just infuriates me to see professional screenwriters making these amateur mistakes (sidenote: I can no longer say that word without thinking of Christian Bale), but all it takes is for Clint Eastwood to come along and take them on a ride to Awesometown.

Ah well, guess it gives a little bit hope for schlubs like me …

"I said, get off my lawn."

"I said, get off my lawn."