Lessons From Empire Records

Some of you know that Empire Records is one of my all-time favourite movies. It captures something about the nineties that other movies seem to have missed, an atmosphere that I guarantee you’ll never find in new movies when that decade becomes “retro” and a cool time period to set movies in.

And I’m not ashamed to admit it, I adore Lucas.

But as I was watching last night, I realized that there were things that I, as a writer, could learn from this movie. No, it’s not perfect, but it does a lot of things very well. The first one that struck me was character introduction.

This isn’t a movie with a small cast. It’s not Game of Thrones huge, but it’s a day in the lives of the people who work at a record store, on a day when absolutely everyone is working. So do we open on a scene with everyone running around, doing their thing?

Of course not. The introductions come quickly so we can get to the story, but each character has a moment (or a scene) where we meet them and learn the basics; depth and details come later, but we get enough to push them into our brains and stick a pin in them until we get back to it. Now, I’m talking about the fan edition; forgive me if anything doesn’t line up with the original cut.

First, there’s Lucas. We learn that he’s closing the store, and he’s been instructed not to touch Joe’s (the manager) beer, cigars, or drums.  A moment later we cut to Lucas touching all of those things, drumming away on the piles of money he’s been instructed to count twice. But count it twice he does, which tells us a lot about Lucas. We also learn something when he discovers that his beloved Empire Records (an independent store) is set to be turned into a big chain store (booooo!), and he decides to take a big risk to try to save this place he loves.

Lucas may have impulse control issues and/or an odd way of respecting authority, but he wants to do the right thing. This in just a few minutes, and from him closing the store. Not the most exciting set-up, no danger or explosions or fights, but we’re thrown into character and story right away, and want to know what happens.

Boom. That’s exactly what all writers are told to aim for in the first few paragraphs, isn’t it?

Other characters trickle in the next morning. Joe, the grumpy manager. Frustrated, beaten down, but it’s quickly apparent that he cares for the kids who work for him. We get Mark, who’s obviously not all there (hi, drugs!), but he’s funny and seems like a good guy. AJ: artistic, confused, and lovesick.

Next scene, Corey and Gina on their way to work. Corey: perfect, organized, efficient and infatuated with a much-older pop star who she plans to seduce later that day…

Because it’s REX MANNING DAY, folks!

Rex is clearly a bit of a douche. This creates tension as we wonder what in the world the sweet, innocent Corey wants with him, and how that’s going to pan out. Bleh.

Gina: Corey’s polar opposite, except that they’re both pretty (of course).

Other employees filter in (Burko and Eddie are really the least-developed ones, but we still get a feel for them*), adding to the cast in little bits, allowing the audience to adjust and get to know them a little before we’re overwhelmed with more people. And while this is happening, of course, there’s a plot developing.

Several plots, actually.

And this is another thing I think is interesting. You have this plot concerning what’s going to happen to the store after Lucas screws things up. This affects everyone. But the subplots are thick in this one. AJ wanting to tell Corey he loves her. Debra tried to kill herself, and everyone’s worried about her. Rex Manning is a douche, and just makes everything worse in the store (and adding conflict is a good thing, right?). And we also have Warren the shoplifter.

Gina hates Debra, Debra hates Gina.  Gina is jealous of Corey but tries to hide it; Corey seems perfect on the outside, but we all know that can’t be right. Everything is coming to a crisis point.

It could be a huge mess, but every sub-plot is tied in to the others, adding to them rather than taking screen time away from them, and everything builds toward the climax and a satisfying resolution. Subplots add depth to a story; keeping them tight and intertwined keeps them from slowing the plot down.

So there’s two things, and plenty of evidence that I can’t just sit and enjoy a movie.  There are other lessons, I’m sure. Dialogue is one:

Aah, I love it.

So, what movies have you learned from? Jae, I know you always find lessons in movies (everyone else, have a look!). Anyone else have one movie you just adore and want to share with the class rest of us? Or are there movies/books/shows you thing didn’t do character introductions well, throwing so many people at us that we can’t really tell them apart later on? Share!

*However, their hairstyles are never adequately explained. Come to think of it, everyone’s hair is pretty greasy… this may be the film’s primary downfall.

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About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with a Mountie, two kids who take turns playing Jeckyll and Hyde, two cats, an intentional boxer and an accidental chihuahua. She's the author of the bestselling Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy). www.katesparkes.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

10 responses to “Lessons From Empire Records

  • L. Marie

    I love these posts! Great assessment! I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen Empire Records. *hangs head* But I’d like to see it. I love TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU and CLUELESS. Though they’re a bit dated now as far as teen movies go, teens still watch them because of the stellar dialogue and character development. I love the fact that they’re adaptations of older works (The Taming of the Shrew and Emma respectively). They’re full of slang and aren’t afraid to show how teens are–good or bad.

    • katemsparkes

      Clueless is another one of my all-time favourites! I finally got it on DVD for Christmas, which made me very happy. I think it’s held up pretty well, given how firmly planted it is in one time and place. My husband watches it with me, too, mostly because he thinks Cher’s dad is hilarious. “I have a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anyone would miss you.” XD

      And Paul Rudd is always acceptable, in any setting.

  • Jae

    Aw… now I can’t decide if this post is my favorite or the Engrish ones! I LOVE Empire Records! I love that you chose Lucas as your favorite. He’s totally my favorite too! I recently bought the original movie on DVD since everything seems to be only the remix anymore. I’ve seen both. Some good scenes from the remix but the original is still my favorite. This is a great example of multi protagonist plotting since every subplot is connected to the overarching plot in some way. You love the people and end up wishing you worked in the store too. Great post! Great movie! Even though I’m still on vacay when I saw this post I had to come and comment! Thanks Kate!

    • Kate Sparkes

      Any time. 🙂

      I wish I had the original movie, but I couldn’t find it anywhere when I wanted to buy it (oh, these many long years ago). Can you believe that in a few years this movie is going to be twenty years old?! Seems impossible.

  • mysticcooking

    I haven’t seen this movie in years, and now I really want to go out and watch it again. Such a great movie!

    One movie I felt had a good introduction was Stardust. Normally all that stuff in the beginning might feel like an info dumping prologue, but in this case I felt like it totally worked because everything we learn there is all interwoven later throughout the story as well.

  • Shimky

    I’ve been strongly recommended this one on more than one occasion. I must see it soon!

    Thanks for the article!

  • picturemereading

    I LOVE this movie..it is so quotable..and my favorite bits are the Lucas bits as well..Breakfast Club is another favorite of mine!

  • 21st Century Citizen | Lit and Scribbles with Jae

    […] let’s not forget teens in the ’90s. Grunge rock, flannel T-shirts, Empire Records (see Kate’s post on why that’s its own level of awesomeness), and the beginning of boy bands. Plus cellphones […]

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