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Screenwriting techniques and style in “The devil wears Prada” and in “Pas de deux”

“Everybody wants to be us” Miranda Priestly says to her assistant Andrea Sachs, a moment before getting off the car and being surrounded by photographers and journalists. This remark perfectly sums up not only the theme tackled in the film The Devil wears Prada, that is to say personal identity and the way we want to live our lives, but also the fashion editor’s own opinion about the matter. The film tells the story of Andrea Sachs, a college graduate who moves to New York and is hired as the second assistant of Miranda Priestly, a powerful and influential fashion magazine editor.

Starting from the novel The Devil wears Prada, written by Lauren Weisberger, American screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna has managed to improve the storyline of the book by enriching the screenplay by adopting insightful strategies to make the antagonist, the powerful fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly, more human and less stereotyped, and by fully showing the complete arc of transformation of the protagonist, aspiring journalist Andrea (Andy) Sachs. Another aspect which is worth highlighting is McKenna’s extensive use of insightful techniques throughout her screenplay, from the point of view of both character development (again, as far as Meryl Streep’s character is concerned) and language (use of irony and symbolism). In the present work, I am going to illustrate the screenwriting techniques I admire in McKenna’s work, focusing my attention on characterisation, and I am going to explain how I have applied these insights to one of the screenplays I wrote, titled Pas de deux. The scripts tells the story of Christine Lefevre, celebrated prima ballerina of L’Opéra de Paris who, in her 30s, is trying to reinvent her career as a choreographer when she finds herself having to reorganize her priorities in life due to a sudden fatal disease.

The two main aspects which make the screen adaptation of The Devil wears Prada a better story than the one told in the original novel are the completion of the arc of transformation of the protagonist, Andy Sachs, and the humanization of the antagonist, Miranda Priestly. The film opens by introducing Andy’s character, showing her style, her habits, her behaviour, letting the spectator guess her ambitions and professional goals. This prologue directly introduces the theme of the film and the values around which the story revolves. Thus the spectator immediately realizes the plot will concern the theme of identity, questioning the viewer about who they want to be in life. This is achieved by a cross-cutting technique which proves to be extremely effective in displaying two different ways of being in the world, that is to say Andy’s and all the models’ and editors’ working in the fashion industry.

In Pas de deux, I have tried to apply this technique since the very first scene. The opening sequence is a photo shoot in which Christine shows off all her beauty, style and skills as a ballerina, also sporting a proud and arrogant attitude. This kind of overture is meant to introduce the main character, providing information about her personality and her way of living and interacting with other people. Just like Andy, Christine’s attitude towards life and other people will gradually change as the story unfolds, until when the main character’s arc of transformation is complete and Christine has changed at 180 degrees. The same goes for the end, which both in The Devil wears Prada and In Pas de deux, shows the completion of the main character’s arc of transformation. In the former one, Andy flaunts elegant clothes and a smart attitude which she didn’t have at the beginning, which she has acquired working for Miranda and which helps her finally get a job as a journalist. Pas de deux closes with a scene of a photo shoot (thus referring back to the opening scene) in which Christine poses naked, stripped of any kind of make-up or gorgeous outfit, holding just a bunch of sunflowers to cover her chest, and in which she exposes herself and her whole story to the press. The main character has changed, she has managed to break free from the fear of showing her true self and now she is using this new-found strength of hers to help the man she loves.

In The Devil wears Prada, right after the opening sequence, Andy bumps into the “inciting incident”, the engine which sets the story into motion, that is to say Miranda Priestly, her antagonist. The fashion editor is the force of nature with whom Andy needs to confront in order to complete her arc of transformation. McKenna has done an excellent job in humanizing Miranda, showing her not only as a dragon lady but also as a mother and a wife. The scenes showing Miranda during private family moments are very few but they are specifically meant to convey the idea that behind the mask of the “Devil”, there’s a human being, a woman, with all her fears, insecurities and ghosts, as we can witness during the scene in which Miranda tells Andy about her divorce, in her hotel suite in Paris. I tried to apply this insight in Pas de deux, by showing the protagonist, Christine, in some of her most intimate moments, with her brother, her nephew, her friend, photographer Thomas and, of course, with the man who has always loved her, general surgeon Pierre, who’s also her antagonist.

In The Devil wears Prada, another aspect about Miranda which is emphasized is her surprising expertise, as we can witness during the “cerulean scene”, in which the fashion editor teaches Andy about how the fashion industry works. This scene, which is not there in the novel the film was adapted from, is meant to turn the spectator’s point of view upside down. The viewer enters the scene on Andy’s side, thus thinking of Miranda as the dragon lady who’s rude to everybody just for the sake of being evil, and exits the scene seeing the situation from Miranda’s point of view, that is to say realizing how complicated the fashion industry is, how difficult it is to work and to survive in this field and how competent the editor is. On the other hand, at the end of the scene, the spectator thinks of Andy as the naïve and inexperienced intern who knows nothing about the world of fashion and who unfairly snubs it. The “cerulean scene” manages to shift the spectator’s point of view from Andy’s to Miranda’s in just a few minutes. Similarly, in Pas de deux, I stressed Christine’s skills as a ballerina right from the beginning, in the photo shoot scene, emphasizing, in the following scenes, the feeling of admiration and respect all her colleagues feel for her. In particular, at the beginning of the photo shoot scene, she is presented as the spoiled étoile who bosses everybody around and who demands everybody to be at her service whenever she asks for it. Nevertheless, as the scene closes, the spectator has realized how elegant, beautiful, talented and unique Christine is as a ballerina and they admire her just like her colleagues and employees do. Despite the fact that both in the case of Miranda and of Christine their impressive skills don’t justify the roughness with which they approach the people surrounding them, the spectator realizes that these characters completely deserve the respect and the admiration the enjoy from their peers.

In the screenplay of The Devil wears Prada we can also observe several examples of screenwriting techniques which prove McKenna’s talent as a writer. For instance, the last scene of the film is an extraordinary example of the “show, don’t tell” technique. Andy and Miranda haven’t met since the former quitted the job, while in Paris. But the young woman found out that Miranda has reacted to her resignation elegantly, as usually, by sending a recommendation letter to the newsroom of an important magazine to support her and to encourage her to pursue her dream of becoming a journalist. The opportunity for the main character to say “thank you” to her former boss comes, unexpected. The scene is filled with subtext, since no line is uttered and the meaning is conveyed through the characters’ behaviours and facial expressions. Andy shyly waves her hand to say “hi” to Miranda, who doesn’t return her greeting. The fashion editor stands still and cold, she stares at Andy in a detached way, then she gets on her car. Miranda conveys her disappointment about Andy’s resignation through her gaze and detachment. Andy smiles, probably thinking how cold, yet unique, Miranda is and will always be. But the young woman’s affective gaze also conveys the idea that she appreciated what Miranda did for her and that she’ll never forget what she has learnt from her. In the meantime, Miranda has taken off her sunglasses and, sitting in the car, she thinks back of the time Andy and she have spent together: she has felt alone for her whole life because of her career aspirations and, on the whole, she approves and understands Andy’s choice of quitting the job. On the other hand, Miranda perfectly knows that nobody else would be able to do the job as well as she does and, in putting her sunglasses back on and ordering her driver to start the car on, she states her will to sacrifice her life for the good of the fashion magazine, again, just as she has always done.

Similarly, at the end of Pas de deux, Pierre takes Christine to L’Opéra to see The Sleeping Beauty, in an attempt to bring back some sweet memories about the environment of classical ballet in which she grew up, which she has always loved and which she must miss so much. The night of the première, as soon as they enter the theatre, they are wrapped up in a lavish atmosphere of absolute magnificence, which makes Christine feel terribly uncomfortable. In fact, what she fears the most is to be seen by her former colleagues, now that she looks so emaciated and skinny because of the disease she’s suffering from. Throughout this whole scene, Christine and Pierre look into each other’s eyes several times: on the one hand, he guesses how bad she must feel at hearing people from the business talking about her devastated look and staring at her disgusted. On the other hand, in fact, fear and sorrow are written in Christine’s eyes which are flooded with tears and which silently scream for help.

Another screenwriting technique which can be observed in the screenplay of The Devil wears Prada is the one consisting of hiding information about the characters’ backstories in the subtext which, in the case of this film, is also an excellent example of the “set up/ pay off” technique. In the scene in which Andy goes to speak to Nigel, after Miranda’s umpteenth telling off, the man indirectly tells her his own story of when he used to “pretend to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runwayunder the covers at night with a flashlight”. We should also point out that learning about Nigel’s own story is even more important if we consider the way it is paid off in the end, when he doesn’t get the promotion he has always dreamt of. Similarly, in Pas de deux, a lot of information about Christine’s backstory is provided through her brother’s confessions to her wife. This insight is meant not only to simply reveal the main character’s past but also to explain the reasons for her behaviour in the present. Since Christine is an anti-hero, it is vital that the audience side with her right from the beginning of the film and having her brother, the person who knows her the best and loves her the most, explain to the spectator what her qualities as a human being are is specifically meant to encourage the audience to love her.

“Everybody wants to be us”. That’s how Miranda Priestly describes her own way of being in the world and in doing it she states her pride of everything she has achieved in life. Actually, in her own mind, she has already completed her arc of transformation and she has realized there are more important things in life other than one’s career. But several years ago, she chose to dedicate her life to her job and now she’s ready to face the consequences of that choice. On the contrary, Christine Lefevre is still young and she can still make up for her mistakes. Despite the fact that Miranda’s statement is the point of view from which Christine has always been used to considering situations, the hard experience she goes through helps her understand her mistakes, reframe her values and see things from a new perspective, reorganizing her priorities in life and, ultimately, redeeming herself.