Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 24th, 2015

“Let’s get out of here!”

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The script of Django Unchained
Over the weekend, Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times Magazine published a short essay on the most versatile line of dialogue in movies: “Let’s get out of here!” She quotes examples from films ranging from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Grease to Titanic, and she notes that Roger Ebert once “casually ranked” it as one of the most common lines in cinema, alongside “Look out!” and “Take this!” Heffernan doesn’t mention—or perhaps she was unaware—that the line’s apparent popularity is more than just a hunch, at least according to Guinness Film Facts and Feats, which states:

The most hackneyed line in movie scripts is “Let’s get outta here.” A survey of 150 American features of the period 1938-74 (revived on British television) showed that it was used at least once in 84 per cent of Hollywood productions and more than once in 17 percent.

And although this particular source is four decades out of date, I don’t doubt that an updated study would yield much the same result. A quick search on Subzin, which pulls in quotes from movie and television subtitles, reveals thousands of examples, including many instances from recent movies like Birdman, Fury, Lone Survivor, and Muppets Most Wanted.

Heffernan goes on to make the case, based on her readings of the scripts of this year’s Oscar nominees, that the line that resonates more with us now is “Stay.” It’s a little too anecdotal to be entirely convincing, and it smacks a bit of a Ctrl-F search. But I love the way she explains the appeal of the earlier phrase:

“Let’s get out of here” may be the five most productive monosyllables in American movies. It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt. No wonder screenwriters can’t get enough of it.

In other words, it’s a kind of screenwriting multitool, a line that comes in handy in any number of situations. I’ve noted before that writers of all kinds are always on the lookout for reliable tricks, and “Let’s get out of here” might be the best of them all. It’s like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but for real—something you can always say when you can’t think of anything else. If you’re writing a script or a story and you’re stuck on a line, you can have a character say those five little words, and more often than not, it’ll work.

Script for American Hustle

And what makes “Let’s get out of here” so useful is that has all the qualities that Heffernan notes—it confers agency, drives the story forward, and prompts a change of scene—while being uninflected enough to pass unremarked. Your average cliché is rendered useless, or of limited utility, once it becomes familiar enough to be noticeable, but “Let’s get out of here” is to screenplay structure what a subordinating conjunction, like “in order that” or “as soon as,” is to ordinary grammar. It’s a connective that bridges two units of action, and it’s so commonplace that we don’t even hear it. Yet it still retains its power, in part because of the subtle way in which it differs from similar sentiments like “Let’s leave” or “Let’s go.” As Heffernan says:

“Let’s get out of here” is our bold spin on the innocuous “Let’s leave,” sending a signal to the nervous system that we’re slipping the knot, and we’re doing it together. The offhand contempt in the phrase is what makes it so satisfying: When we’re getting out of here, we’re not going to some idealized destination. Who knows where we’re going, really? Anywhere but here.

Occasionally, screenwriters try to invent a new phrase that serves the same purpose, but the results aren’t nearly as neat as the gold standard that has gradually evolved over time. There was a moment in the last decade when every other movie—Children of Men, The Hangover, Star Trek, Iron Man—seemed to include some version of the line “Walk with me.” You can see why it might catch a screenwriter’s eye: it’s pithy, it provides a neat justification for a walk and talk, and the imperative form is all business, as if the character has too much on his mind to simply say “Let’s take a walk.” The only trouble is that it doesn’t sound much like anything a real human being would say, unless he or she is mimicking a movie. It rings false, at least to me, and it always takes me out of the story for a second: I’m aware of the screenwriter straining just a tad too hard. And it isn’t necessary. “Let’s get out of here” is perfectly fine, and it works its magic without drawing attention to itself. (It also seems to appear more often in the movies themselves in their original scripts, implying that it was improvised on the set, which only shows how intuitive it is.) So there’s little point in tinkering with something that already works so beautifully: in movies, as in most kinds of storytelling, the only important thing is to get from here to there.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2015 at 10:07 am

Quote of the Day

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Edward Albee

You have the right not to change anything, but don’t be a fool. Change things if somebody else is right. But if you do change something because somebody else is right, you must instantly take credit for it yourself. That’s very important.

—Attributed to Edward Albee

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2015 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Theater

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