25 Years Later: Why The DAZED AND CONFUSED Script Works
How does a screenplay with multiple lead characters that have no true arc or defining moment manage to stand the test of time amidst a narrative that has virtually no plot? Enter Dazed and Confused.
Richard Linklater's coming-of-age rock and roll cult classic turns twenty-five this year. The film tells the story of Texas high school and junior high students on the last day of school in May 1976 — America's bicentennial.
Linklater was a young auteur coming off of the recent success of the microbudget indie hit Slacker (1991).
When he met some Hollywood producers, they asked what he had in mind for his follow-up. He told them that he had a rock and roll story in the works that follows high school kids on the first day and night of summer. The producers bit, and Linklater was flown out to Los Angeles to pitch to Universal after the producers pitched the young writer/director as the next George Lucas (referring to similarities between Lucas's American Graffiti and Linklater's Dazed and Confused) — Universal took to the pitch, and the film was a go.
The production was a definite struggle between the indie perspective of Linklater and the overbearing stronghold of a major movie studio, leading to the film being released in just 183 theaters in its opening weekend — accompanied by a lackluster promotional marketing campaign.
Once the film hit VHS, it garnered $30 million and beyond, quickly becoming a cult classic that lives on to this day.
Not-So-Special Day and Night
While the concept of an American Graffiti-type movie for the generation who came of age in the 1970s was appealing, the similarities between story and characters couldn't have been more different.
American Graffiti showcased the last night in the lives of high school friends that were either going off to college, entering the workforce, or headed to Vietnam. The film was clearly documenting the emotions of such an important event in those lives.
However, Dazed and Confused wasn't putting the narrative spotlight on any such grand moment in the lives of the high school students. Instead, we were looking into a small window of their lives as the last day of school came and went, leading to parties, beer runs, pool halls, and hijinks.
The main characters weren't even graduating high school yet. They were newly declared seniors with still a year of high school to go. And the screenplay wasn't even featuring the coming-of-age moments of junior high students experiencing high school for the first time — this was just another summer day and night.
No Driving Plot
So with no major character arcs being explored, surely there's a compelling plot that takes us through the whole eventual film?
Not so much. Dazed and Confused is lacking in significant plot motivations and devices. There is no conventional plotting of moments beyond the overarching conflict of first-year students getting paddled by seniors. That is the sole piece of evidence of any consistent plot.
Instead, we follow the characters through their first day and night of summer. They drive in cars and bob their heads to now-classic seventies tunes, they play baseball, they smoke pot, they drink, they fight, they make out, and that's about it.
No Specific Story Structure
While every story has a beginning, middle, and end, the actual story structure employed by Dazed and Confused is nearly invisible. The story essentially unfolds in three acts, if you can call them that.
The Hazing, which consists of high school senior girls hazing their new freshmen recruits — as well as the "busting" of freshmen boys at the hands of their senior counterparts.
The Cruising, which consists of the moments of interchanging carloads of characters making their way between the Top Notch burger joint and the Emporium pool hall.
The Beer Bust, which consists of the multiple storylines as the characters drink beer, smoke pot, get in fights, make out, and share discussions — some deep, some not.
So with no narrative impact of the story showcasing a grand moment in life that audiences can identify with (graduating, leaving for college, losing your virginity), no plot to make up for the lack of character arcs, and no specific story structure to speak of, how did the Dazed and Confused script manage to work — eventually becoming a celebrated classic that multiple generations continue to embrace?
Some stories benefit not from significant character and story arcs, not from clever plots, but from presenting a world that is interesting, intriguing, and nostalgic.
Dazed and Confused shines at capturing the real 1970s — long before high school students had their faces embedded in their smartphones, surfing the internet and presenting their digital selves within the realms of social media via Facegram and Instabook (that's a joke, not a typo).
But it wasn't a clichéd presentation of that decade with overdone wardrobe, hair, and set design. Linklater managed to capture the world that high school kids were living in at that time. They were caught in between the 1960s (which rocked) and the upcoming 1980s (which would surely be radical). Vietnam was over. Watergate was behind. It was a rather lost time that too many remember through pop culture as the Disco Era.
All that was left to do for these kids on a summer night was play sports, cruise, haze, drink, make out, and smoke pot. And that's where Linklater's world of Summer 1976 shines. Because there are no major themes to present, the script relied on the characters caught in this single small moment of their lives.
Characters Void of Clichés
Most movies that portray high school can't help but fall victim to clichés — whether it's The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, or Mean Girls. The jocks are jocks. The popular girls are the popular girls. The stoners are the stoners. The geeks are geeks. The freaks are freaks.
Linklater brilliantly offered us a more realistic cast of characters. Jocks hung out with stoners and geeks. Stoners and geeks hung out with popular girls. Jocks were stoners. Freaks had popular friends.
We look back and remember the cliques of our own high schools, but the truth is, the lines separating those cliques weren't as evident as the late John Hughes portrayed them in his still excellent high school movies — or anything that came after.
The character of Pink was both a jock, a stoner, and a geek. The script managed to show a character that could blend in with each and every group. Even freshman Mitch managed to exist within the crowd of upperclassmen.
And there were no clichéd moments of Pink struggling to find his identity amidst each clique of friends pulling him this way or that. He, and his peers from both cliques, jumped back and forth between each group with little to no conflict. Throughout the story, Linklater shows characters switching from one car of friends to another, each representing diverse groups.
Because of this lack of clichés, Dazed and Confused manages to be relevant to all audiences, young and old. Despite the hair, "funny" clothes, and different music, the film's characters and themes resonate with people that went to high school in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and beyond.
Small Story Windows
Lesser films would have told the story of these characters over the course of a whole school year, detailing the varying tension between some of the popular girls, Pink's struggle with independent thought as he juggles friends and football, Mitch's struggle to be accepted in the eyes of upper-classmates, Wooderson's struggle to grow up, etc.
We talked about the benefits of writing screenplays set within small story windows of the characters and their lives in ScreenCraft's The Most Underrated Elements of Successful Screenplays.
When you write within the confines of smaller story windows, the tension, suspense, drama, and conflict are bigger, better, and more present.
Dazed and Confused excels in that respect — in more ways than one. Not only is the story set in the small window of the first day and night of Summer 1976, throughout the whole film we are bounced back and forth into even smaller windows of stories that take place within that day and night. Linklater shifts from one conversation in one car to the next — often in mid-conversation. We don't know where the discussion between the characters started and how those discussions end. Instead, we're treated to the very best parts to give us a sense of those characters and their larger stories.
Because of these characters and stories existing in these small windows, they are more accessible to the script reader and eventual audience — and each moment within shines even more.
Multiple characters within a script can hinder the pacing drastically as the script reader has to remember each character while each scene is often flooded with those numerous characters.
Linklater utilized multiple characters to enhance the pacing of his script as he was afforded the ability to jump back and forth between multiple storylines, which created swift pacing and broke up the otherwise long dialogue sequences between characters in each group.
And each time we got comfortable with particular groupings of characters in a room, car, or part of the beer bust field, Linklater shifted and interchanged those groups as some characters left, switched cars, or moved to different parts of the party.
With a script that was so dialogue-driven, this technique was so necessary to keep us engaged and invested in the characters and what they were talking about. Dialogue exchanges — even slight monologues — were brief. And because of that, what was actually being said wasn't lost within multiple lines of dialogue exchanges.
Dialogue-driven screenplays are hard to pull off. The exchanges between characters have to be so good. Most screenwriters that attempt these types of screenplays — often young filmmakers trying to both write and direct their own scripts — create talking head stories that are rarely that interesting or engaging.
While there are some minor misses with Linklater's Dazed and Confused, most of the dialogue drives the characters, their world, and their beliefs — sometimes with hilarity, sometimes with nostalgia, and sometimes with great profoundness.
Because Linklater works in small story windows, we actually benefit from small character moment windows where the lack of extended dialogue exchanges manages to elevate those very words.
While many are fans of My Dinner with Andre, those types of scenes and sequences can get real old real fast. Dazed and Confused manages to use multiple characters and interchanges their groupings so well that we get a wide variety of excellent and entertaining dialogue.
Great Rewrites and Casting
If you read this early draft of the Dazed and Confused script, you'll see the genesis of most of the now classic scenes that fans of the movie cherish. What you'll also see are extended moments of dialogue that just didn't need to be there — that just pushed the limits between engaging dialogue and overselling the moment. Linklater wisely cut each of those scenes down, whether it was within the final shooting draft or during the editing process.
The casting aspect of a screenplay is out of the writer's control — except in the case of an auteur like Linklater. But it's worthy to mention the impact that great casting can have on a film and how it can affect the screenplay.
The producers asked casting legend, Don Phillips, to come out of retirement for Dazed and Confused. Phillips had assembled the amazing cast of 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When he came on board, he insisted that they go with unknowns — or virtually unknowns — for the roles.
No greater casting impact has prevailed more than the film's casting of Matthew McConaughey. His role of Wooderson was just a two-line character in the shooting draft of the script. When McConaughey was found in an Austin bar — he was going to college and had only been in a beer commercial by then — he was cast immediately as Wooderson.
When production began, he was so good that Linklater began to create more and more scenes with him featured as a lead character.
One "alright, alright, alright" and one "Just Keep Livin, L-I-V-I-N" later, the film had more classic lines that were never part of the original script.
If you write excellent characters within your screenplay, you're merely setting the stage for the next part of the collaboration — great casting.
What the DAZED AND CONFUSED Script Teaches Us
The script teaches us that not every story needs broad character arcs, crucial plot points, and pinpoint structure. If you have stories that involve multiple characters, you can:
- Engage the reader and audience by showcasing a specific world that attracts attention and interest
- Offer characters that are void of the clichés we've already seen in multiple films and television series
- Focus on small story windows to enhance the conflicts and drama
- Use the multiple characters in creative ways to cut between scenes and showcase small character moment windows
- Find creative ways to break up the dialogue to heighten each and every word that is spoken
- Learn when too much is too much in scenes during the rewrite process
- Set up the collaboration process by writing great characters that call for great casting
So go do likewise in your scripts and just keep livin'. L-I-V-I-N.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies