Witness – Screenplay structure by the book

October 2, 2008

Witness is one of those movies that gets referenced all the time in screenwriting books because it’s structured exactly like a textbook film.
Spoiler alert.

Setup: Amish people are nice. Look at ’em in their hats and grasses. They call the rest of the world “the English”. A pretty Amish widow (Kelly McGillis) and her little boy embark on a journey.

Inciting incident: Danny Glover, in a fit of pique, stabs a Sean Penn lookalike in a mens’ room. Tiny Lukas Haas looks on with ginormous Amish eyes. He is a witness, you see. This is how the writers got the idea of naming the film.

Please don't stab that man, mister.

Please don't stab that man, mister.

Act One Turning Point: Harrison Ford, assigned to the case, gets a nasty shock when Little Amish Samuel IDs the killer: turns out Danny Glover is a fellow cop. Harrison sequesters mom & son with his sister, Broadway grande dame Patti “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” LuPone, seen here with a super-special haircut.

Patti LuPone.  Someone get this gal a wig.

Patti LuPone. Someone get this gal a wig.

Act One Decision: Uh oh, turns out Harrison’s cop mentor is in on the deal too. Harrison gets shot and flees with the Hot Amish Mom and the little boy. His injury is severe enough that he has to hide among the Amish til things calm down.

Act Two: Harrison sweats out his gunshot wound (uuuh, okay?) and learns about the Amish. He makes wood toys, learns to milk a cow, and gets a tour of the farm and corn silo. Through it all, he casts longing glances at the Hot Amish Mom (HAM), which raises Amish eyebrows all over the village. Grandpa Beard and little Lukaas Haas have a nice expository little talk about why the Amish hate “guns of the hand”. Then Han Solo helps raise a barn in a pointless but fascinating scene. Oh, and looking closely at the other Amish men in the scene, I noticed one who looked a little Elfish for the Amish.

Viggo Mortensen has a tiny role in Witness.

Viggo Mortensen has a tiny role in Witness.

Crisis: Harrison phones home only to discover that the bad cops killed his best friend. Crap. He leaves the phone booth to discover some Pennsylvania townies being rude to the gentle pacifist Amish, who are know for never fighting back. Not this Amish. Overalls-clad Harrison steps in and kicks serious butt, downtown-stylez. When the cops arrive, Harry’s cover is blown.

Revelation: Harrison goes back to the farm and smooches the heck out of the Hot Amish Mom. Finally. He loves him some HAM, apparently.

Smoochin a cop in a field?  Thats a shunnin.

Smoochin a cop in a field? That's a shunnin'.

Climax: The bad cops come to town. Harrison dumps all the corn from the corn silo to suffocate suffocorn one, then ambushes & shoots Danny Glover. Glover’s long legs, splayed akimbo in the foreground of a wide-angle-lens upshot, make him look like a giant spider squashed into graphic red schmear on the whitewashed barn wall. It’s probably the best shot in the film. Then back to Harrison, who confronts his ol’ mentor and, disarmingly, disarms him.

Comedown: Harrison has to leave the Amish and go back to the city. The little boy says a simple “G’bye John Book”. The Hot Amish Mom defies convention, eyes a-flashin’, and embraces the English right there in the field. Even Old Beardie offers an ironic “You be careful out there with all them English” as Indy Jones drives away.

It really is textbook- the only real deviation is the barn-raising, which is clearly just included because it’s so cool. And it is, it’s totally worth it to establish place, although it doesn’t much advance plot. Anyway, textbook works. It’s a solid movie, and even though I knew the plot before seeing it, it still held my interest. It was a pretty big deal in 1985, too- nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, & Best Harrison Ford, and winning for Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing. So, yeah.