Screenplay Structure: Lost in Translation
Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) has always sort of given me the feeling of “I shouldn’t be watching this” in a way that the connection and vulnerabilities of the characters are SO real. While there is still some humor present in the film, discomfort and dissatisfaction make the film quiet and somewhat somber, but also human and hopeful.
The writing in Lost in Translation is able to pinpoint a really specific feeling and tone of uncertainty while continuing to tell a story that moves through a traditional three act structure. Coppola’s film was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Bill Murray’s performance, and won Best Original Screenplay.
So here’s what happens: well known, but past his prime actor, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and young, introspective Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) are each staying in Tokyo after being pulled there by different, but essentially similar reasons; their paths cross and they come to confide in one another after experiencing similar feelings brought to attention by an environment that is so culturally different.
Act 1: Set Up
Bob Harris (Bill Murray) arrives in Tokyo. He is alone despite the attentive hotel staff, business acquaintances, and action movie fans.
He receives two messages from his wife Lydia.
Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is alone in her hotel room after her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) leaves for work.
Bob notices Charlotte, for the first time, in a crowded elevator.
Bob is on set for the whiskey commercial he is in Tokyo to shoot. He struggles to understand the director’s instructions through the interpreter.
Charlotte goes out on her own to visit a shrine. Afterwards she calls her friend. She is upset and alone again after her friend hangs up.
When John comes back he talks about work, the two seem disconnected. We can see that Charlotte is alone even when she is with John.
Charlotte explores more of Tokyo on her own and Bob gets back on set.
John runs into his old friend Kelly (Anna Faris) who is in Tokyo promoting an action movie she starred in.
Act 1: Catalyst
Bob and Charlotte are both awake in their respective hotel rooms flipping television channels.
They then meet in the hotel bar. They talk about their marriages and the fact that they both can’t sleep.
Act 2A: Break into Two/ Plot Point 1
When John leaves again, Charlotte and Bob meet up since they both can still not sleep.
Charlotte invites Bob to come out with her and her friends. They have a great time together.
Bob talks to his wife on the phone briefly.
Act 2A: Fun & Games
Bob and Charlotte go to the hospital to get Charlotte’s toe looked at.
They ditch their friends at a strip club, when they get back to the hotel Kelly is singing in the hotel bar.
Act 2A-2B: Transition (Midpoint)
Charlotte is alone in her hotel room again when she receives a message from Bob asking if she is awake.
They have a conversation where Charlotte admits to Bob and herself that she feels stuck.
Bob is vulnerable about his family life when Charlotte asks if marriage gets easier.
Act 2B: Transition/ Tensions Rise
Charlotte leaves Tokyo for Kyoto. Bob is back in Tokyo avoiding his business acquaintances.
He appears on a talk show, which he later watches back in his room.
He talks to his wife on the phone again, this time it is most obvious that there is tension between them.
Bob brings the bar jazz singer back to his hotel room and when Charlotte comes to see him she can hear her inside. They have a tense meal together.
Later the fire alarm goes off at the hotel and they meet again.
Act 2B/3 Transition: Plot Point 2
Bob is leaving tomorrow. Bob doesn’t want to leave even though he knows he will.
They share an awkward goodbye kiss in the elevator.
The next morning Charlotte comes to see him off.
Immediately after Bob leaves he gets out of his car to the airport when he spots Charlotte in a crowd. They say goodbye again and part ways.
Though they are at very different places in their lives, Bob and Charlotte both feel stuck, and in many situations, especially in this foreign city, lonely. The overall tone of the movie relays those feelings to the audience through the editing and cinematography, and the fantastic acting aids in this as well, but even down to the dialogue, the characters are natural and not forced. Something really special about the film’s tone and pacing is that it makes the film’s three act structure almost undetectable on a first time viewing furthering the overall feel and vision of the film.
Marissa Caico is a recent grad in Film Studies (CUNY Queens College, 2018) and is interested in all aspects of the craft. She loves food, art, and traveling. Some of her favorite movies include Napoleon Dynamite, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Stranger Than Paradise, and Paris Is Burning.