Everyone loves a good mental institution movie. On paper it seems like an incredibly bad idea; “Let’s set the film within the relatively small confines of a sterile medical institute so that we can focus on the actions of a bunch of unstable people who may be drugged into a trance like state”. Yeah, like that is an easy pitch to producers. It may fly for your artsy plays but this is Hollywood, movies need big guns, big explosions, and a sassy sidekick. Well, it turns out that stripping away all of those distractions (except the sassy sidekick) and focusing on simple human experiences and feelings does make a good movie.
I think it is safe to assume you are in to get rich quick schemes. That stack of lottery tickets beside you gives you away. Besides, there is only so far $8.25 an hour for flipping burgers will get you. (Editor’s note: Steve is referring to the lottery tickets beside him and he highly respects those who dedicate their lives to burgertude) That is why I am going to teach you how to write a hard hitting drama in a mental institute. Well, I was going to but then I realized that is way more effort than I am willing to put in so we’ll just take a look at the elements every mental institute movie needs.
1) The protagonist should not be there
Very few people believe they are crazy. In fact, you would have to be crazy to think that, making you not crazy, which makes you crazy. Don’t look at me, I did not make the rule. The point is that we are shown enough of the hero that we know they are just a regular person having a bad day. They are so normal that there are generally only a couple of patients they feel comfortable around; a love interest and the crazy sane character.
2) The Crazy Sane Character
All movies about crazy people need an apparently grounded character that generally guides the protagonist through their adventure of self adventure and preachy overtones. This character immediately gives us someone to identify with, being that we are presumably not insane, and gets the crowd pleasing lines where they describe everyone else’s craziness. They can get away with all of this because they are highly functioning and not petting an imaginary cat.
The crazy sane character at some point reveals that they are indeed crazy, but by that point the viewer is so attached they can comfortably come to the realization that crazy people are people too and ignore whatever mumbo jumbo they spill.
3) A Game Room
I know, I know, patients need entertainment too so why is the game room so note worthy? The game room is the mental institution’s version of the prison exercise yard. It is the standard setting to highlight all of the various characters in a minimally supervised environment. Most of the time patients are shown to be entirely unable to use any of the games so really the institute could have a library, a weight room, or even a ball room.
At some point, a patient will flip out and tear apart the games room, which supports the Hollywood rule of “if X is impressive, X times a billion is a billion times better!” (X is throwing board game pieces in this case).
4) The inmates running the asylum
Nearing the end of the movie the inmates have to take control of the asylum. We have been rooting for them the whole film, wanting them to break free from their drug-induced shackles and experience the joys of life. Through some sort of bargaining or more nefarious shenanigans they bring the outside world in for some unrestricted fun. Unfortunately this fun must end with the protagonist screwing up their life.
With these three components as your starting point, all you need to do is decided on the style of movie. Artsy drama? The hero is unnecessarily committed, the head doctor/nurse is overly cruel and controlling, and the facility is crumbling and old. Connect the dots between 1-4 and toss on the lobotomized hero ending and you have an Oscar winner. Heartwarming comedy? Take the unnecessarily committed hero, add in a love interest, and make sure the crazy sane character is goofy. Close off 1-4 with the hero redeeming themself for some misguided selfishness and riding off into the sunset (read: outside world) with the love interest.
Stick to these main elements and you are set. You could always deviate from the norm but that would be crazy.