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7 Screenwriting Lessons From Crime Movies

So, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock IN outer space for the last two years, you’ll know I’ve been involved in helping make JK Amalou’s ASSASSIN – which is OUT NOW. Find it on iTunes, in all good DVD stores, on Sky Demand and other VoD services, or CLICK HERE.


Crime movies are big business in filmmaking and screenwriting in general: the spec pile is FULL to bursting with murderers; hitmen; gamblers; bank robbers; mafiasos; gangsters and more! What’s more, love ’em or hate ’em they’re here to stay cos drama is CONFLICT and these geezers bring bagloads with them.

As ever though, the difference between produced and spec screenplays with these characters is a CHASM. To celebrate Assassin, I’m going to take a look at some of my favourite recent produced Hitman/Criminal movies (plus a couple of classics) … From there, I’ll reference what we can learn and put in our own screenplays. Let’s go!


1) Goodfellas (1990)

Lesson: Keep us with the story – no matter what

It would be rather remiss of me not to mention GOODFELLAS, especially since Assassin’s Exec Producer is none other than Scorsese super-muse Barbara De Fina! GOODFELLAS is an adaptation of Wiseguy, a book that details the exploits of the real-life Lucchese Crime Family. According to Wikipedia, GOODFELLAS is considered one of the best, most popular crime movies of all time. I discovered this too when researching my book, Writing And Selling Drama Screenplays: twenty five years on, it still topped the biopic charts on IMDB. It’s very easy to get carried away with adapting books, especially when they’re also true stories. GOODFELLAS spans a LOT of time and unlike many spec biopics that deal with HUGE stories (an entire crime family of well differentiated psychopaths!!), GOODFELLAS never once feels unwieldy to me. I think this is down to the clever signposting of the story in Ray Liotta’s character Henry, who performs a narrator function and keeps the audience “anchored”. It’s important to remember that voiceover is not a “fix all cure” however – HOW you do it is what counts. MORE: All About Voiceover

american-articleLarge 2) The American (2010)

Lesson: Surprise and challenge the audience from the offset

I’m a big Rowan Joffe fan and for my money, I think this screenplay is his best so far. Another adaptation, it’s the beginning that really grabs me. No spoilers here, but let’s just say it’s not something you would expect a protagonist to do in the first instance if you’re supposed to empathise with his journey — it breaks ALL the “rules” about so-called “likeability” of characters and proves absolutely you can write compelling characters who do terrible, heinous things … and not only that, you can even see why they do them. MORE: Newsflash – your characters don’t have to be “likeable”


 3) Hanna (2011)

Lesson: Twist a traditional story

Women and violence mix in the Thriller and Action-Adventure genres a lot, but usually in the so-called “Hardcore Hottie” tradition: she may be fun, but she’s more often than not just a fantasy character. In stark contrast then, I loved HANNA’s grittiness and could feel myself empathising with her journey, because Hanna’s revenge is essentially a traditional coming of age story with prominent fairytale elements – and what a story! As a result, the ending might be inevitable, but it’s not predictable … Also, take a good look at the character role functions in this movie. What’s different to “normal” in this genre / type of story? OH RIGHT: a female (teenage) protagonist and an adult female antagonist! MORE: 33 Experts Share What They Want Next From Female Characters

The Town

4) The Town (2010)

Lesson: Whatever normally happens in this “type” of story? Do the opposite.

I love heist movies, but very often they’re cold and calculated, focusing on the (often, convoluted) plotting: our dramatic satisfaction is essentially cerebral, rather than emotional. This isn’t the case with THE TOWN: instead, we’re brought very much into the world of the characters and invited to identify with them, particularly Doug, the protagonist (played by Ben Affleck) and his platonic, brotherly love for  James (Jeremy Renner). This introduction to his “softer side” then means we are unsurprised when Doug falls for Claire and is willing to do what it takes to protect her, even to his own detriment: he is not the knight in shining armour and she is not the princess in the tower. Refreshing. MORE: Surprise us with reversals in your screenplay

MrMrsSmith_105Pyxurz5) Mr And Mrs Smith (2005)

Lesson: Make sure your secondary characters are memorable

With all this serious crime and psychopathy going on, now might be a good time to remember a little humour goes a long way too … But if you go this route, it’s wise to make sure your secondaries aren’t just dull sounding boards for your hilarious main characters. I really enjoyed the idea of an Assassin’s handler living at home, screaming like a teenager: “Mom! We’re on high alert here, I almost killed you right then!”. But now of course Vince Vaughn’s character Eddie has been done … so how are YOU going to do it instead? MORE: 6 Stock Characters That Need Retiring By Writers Right Now

joseph-gordon-levitt-in-looper-movie-246) Looper (2012)

Lesson: Mix it up genre-wise and STAND OUT

As I reference in my *other* screenwriting book, Writing And Selling Thriller Screenplays, love it or loathe it, LOOPER is a genre-busting movie, but what does that mean??? Well, put basically, it takes something “pre-sold” that audiences are familiar with (and probably sick of!) – in this case, two things: time travel and hitmen – and creates something that feels fresh and new. Now, LOOPER is probably not the first ever movie to do time travelling hitmen, BUT it was the first to do it in such a way that grabbed an audience’s imagination quite like this (remember number 4, here!) and as a result, audiences went crazy for it. Is it any wonder Rian Johnson’s gone on to do even BIGGER things, like STAR WARS? MORE: How to Bust A Genre


 7) The Krays (1990) 

Lesson: Make even the most ruthless of criminals, human

There are of course LOADS of great Brit crime movies, but it seems only fitting to reference the grandaddy of them all, THE KRAYS, especially since it stars Martin and Gary Kemp as the infamous Kray twins, who also star as The Alberts Brothers in Assassin.

Family and crime are often inextricably linked: the bond the Kray twins had was said to border on extremes, with the two brothers being incredibly close AND incredibly competitive: for example, Ronnie Kray was almost killed in a fight with Reggie. A movie simply about the exploits of the Krays would have been violent and ruthless, yet by including this damaged part of them – represented in their mother Violet, played to perfection by Billie Whitelaw – we can see who they are and what drives them, which in part is pleasing her.

I should also mention this is a lesson ASSASSIN takes literally: on screen together as a duo for the first time in twenty five years, The Kemps reprise this dark, yet very human element as John (Gary) and Lee (Martin), albeit in a different way. They’re not your average businessmen-type-gangsters, as we see from the very first shot of The Alberts, at home when Jamie (Danny Dyer) comes knocking for his assignment … Watch and see! MORE: 5 Screenwriting Hard Truths (Or The Best Way To F*** Up Your Screenplay) by JK Amalou, plus buy Assassin, HERE.


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9 thoughts on “7 Screenwriting Lessons From Crime Movies”

  1. Is this all to promote Assassin this great different gangster movie with… Did you say Danny Dyer? Is this the one that will be released straight to DVD in March… Sounds like a great script!

    1. Aaaah the obligatory Danny dyer bashing, how original. As for “straight to DVD” — Yes, because hardbacks are so much better than paperbacks which are so much better than ebooks, right? Oh wait … Time to change the old rhetoric!

  2. This adds a couple of movies to my to-watch list. I really like Mr and Mrs Smith, and Hanna. I think Hanna busts its genres a bit as well, and I liked how it was done. The cast was also incredible. I was disappointed by The American and Looper, but in my defense, I didn’t know they were going to be “different.” I wanted an exciting, adrenaline-fueled sci-fi action from Looper, and got a more of a twisted drama with action scenes and sci-fi elements. And with The American, I wasn’t ready for the action to be so… not present. But perceptions and expectations go along way, so I’ll watch again with the “lessons” in mind. I also quite enjoyed Joffe’s Before I Go to Sleep.

  3. I absolutely loved The American, good to see it on this list. Hanna surprised me as well, as I only watched it on one of those there’s-nothing-else-on-the-telly nights!

    One thing though, I have never seen Mr and Mrs Smith, probably as the storyline always struck me as being a reheat of the fabulous (and missing from here :P) Prizzi’s Honor. Am I wrong? Is this a missing gem I should seek out?

    Great article as always, Lucy.

    1. Couldn’t say Big G, not sure if I’ve watched Prizzi tbh (I watch a loooooooot of films) but what I can say is I found MR AND MRS SMITH very amusing and I liked the inversion of “usual” gender role types here and even though they’re both assassins and we’re not (honest!), I recognised some of my own marital struggles with Mr C here

  4. When is this endless drivel of third rate British gangster movies aimed at 14 year old virgin boys going to end? It would be worth something to see a movie that rivals a classic such as The Long Good Friday in terms of dialogue, storyline and subject matter – oh and actually about something. Instead we are offered usually from the £50k spectrum of film making digital exercises in ineptitude designed to gross out in terms of violence and how many times the likes of Danny Dyer can utter the C’ word. Depressing. But maybe Assassin might be different? One hopes.

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