Monday, June 1, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: Johnny English (2003) - Using a Set Piece to Show Comedy & Character

[Quick Summary: Johnny English, the last MI5 agent alive, must rescue England from a criminal set on turning it into a dump.]

What is the best way that a writer can help a physical actor like Rowan Atkinson?

Take advantage of set pieces to further the comedy and the character.

For example, in the scene below:
SET PIECE  = Johnny English and sidekick is in a parking enforcement truck with his Aston Martin on the flatbed.  They are stuck in traffic on a bridge.

CHARACTER MOTIVE = They are chasing a hearse and competing against the mysterious Lorna.

COMEDY QUESTION: What is a funny way to use this set piece to showcase English's smarts, impress Lorna, and get him closer to the hearse (goal)?

ANSWER: Apparently it is a Crane + Aston Martin.

ex. AT THE FRONT OF THE QUEUE the hearse has pulled up onto the kerb, then with a ROAR it accelerates PAST THE LIGHTS and away down a side street toward the ROAD BELOW.

Lorna gets clear of the final car and FLASHES AWAY after it.

BOUGH (CONT'D): We're stuck, we'll never get this lorry down that pavement.

THE LIGHTS -- are still red, the LINE OF TRAFFIC isn't moving at all.

ENGLISH: We don't have to, Bough. Fire up the crane.


Bough stands by the small HYDRAULIC CRANE, working the levers as he swings the ASTON MARTIN of the flatbed and out over the SIDE OF THE BRIDGE.

CLOSE ON --THE ASTON MARTIN and sitting inside, coiled behind the wheel, English.

ENGLISH: Now, Bough!

Bough shuts off the crane and RELEASES the clamps. The Aston Martin DROPS LIKE A STONE.


Lorna is just turning into the street below, ready to speed away after the hearse when the ASTON MARTIN suddenly SLAMS DOWN into the road DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF HER.

She SWERVES wildly, the bike THUMPING into the kerb, and as it spins crazily away...


as she's CATAPULTED off the bike flies OVER the embankment, and disappears INTO THE RIVER beyond.

With a grin, English FIRES up the Aston Martin and SPEEDS OFF after the hearse.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: My setup is "The Aston Martin DROPS LIKE A STONE" because of the payoff ("suddenly SLAMS DOWN into the road DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF HER."

It's essentially a guy showing off to the girl he likes.

Johnny English (2003)(rev by Will Davies, 3/1/02 draft)
by Robert Wade & Neal Purvis

Monday, May 25, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: Enemy of the State (1998) - The Moment It Gets Up Close & Personal

[Quick Summary: When Dean, a bystander to a conspiracy coverup, is framed by the NSA, he frames them in revenge.]

To me, this script reads like this for the first 20 pgs.:

National security breach - blah blah blah  - backstabbing --blah blah blah - politics - blah blah blah - high government officials - blah blah blah.

I didn't care enough, so it bored me.

I didn't care enough because these weighty matters didn't seem to MATTER to these characters.

When did I sit up and care?

When the interaction became up close & personal for the characters:


...The SALES CLERK goes around the counter to the rear area. DEAN glances at the fashion show when he glimpses --

ZAVITZ, hurrying through the women's dressing area, desperately looking for an exit. No luck. ZAVITZ moves toward DEAN, about to break for the front, but HICKS is there searching. Trapped, ZAVITZ ducks behind a display.

DEAN watches, unaware of ZAVITZ's pursuers. Then it clicks...

DEAN: Daniel?

ZAVITZ turns, frightened....

DEAN: It's me, Robert Dean. (beat) From Seth, Silverberg. I worked on --

ZAVITZ: Bobby --

DEAN: It's been a few years.


DEAN: I'm just doing some Christmas shopping. It's for my wife, no kidding. Though, this isn't the main present, it's just, you know, a little --

ZAVITZ: I need help.

DEAN: Tell me about it.

ZAVITZ: How can I reach you?

DEAN (beat): Are you okay?

ZAVITZ: Are you still in Crystal City?

DEAN:  Yeah, what's going on?

SALES CLERK (O.S.): I think she'll like this very much.

DEAN: Listen, Daniel, hang on one second.

SALES CLERK: For that matter, I think you will too.

DEAN (to the SALES CLERK): Could you give me just a moment to talk to a friend of mine here? Not about this, but ...Daniel?

DEAN looks around...

...ZAVITZ is gone.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: "Threat to the nation" conspiracies are boring and a dime a dozen. Show me how it gets personal for the characters. WHY does it matter to him/her?

Enemy of the State (1998)(2/10/97 rewrite)
by David Marconi

Monday, May 18, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: Training Day (2001) - What Happens Between Characters

[Quick Summary: Jake, a rookie cop experiences his first training day under the wing of Alonzo, a jaded narcotics cop.]

I greatly appreciate that this action/cop drama/muscular script is character based. 

What does that mean? That what happens between characters has meaning, whether it be a conversation or conflict, i.e., not simply guns blazing all the time.

I like that the scene below demonstrates this on a few levels:
- Alonzo is teaching Jake what daily life is like on the streets.
- Alonzo is also asserting "his way or the highway" methods on Jake and the Dealer.
- Jake struggles to comprehend and deal with Alonzo's illegal methods which violate all protocol.
- Jake admires that Alonzo is getting results, yet is repulsed by them.
- There are various power struggles (Alonzo vs. Jake, Alonzo vs. Dealer).


...Jake finishes searching.

ALONZO: No rocks?

JAKE: No rocks.

DEALER (laughing): Aw, dang. See? Ya'll ain't got hit. The man comin' up short again.

Alonzo exits the car. Glares.

ALONZO: I never come up short, fool. (to the Dealer) Open your mouth.

The Dealer does. Sensing to not play with Alonzo.

ALONZO: Lift your tongue.

He does.

DEALER: See. I ain't be gottin' shit.

ALONZO: Gimme a pen.

Jake does. Alonzo grabs the Dealer's neck. Forces the pen in his mouth. Down his throat. He gags --URGH! -- Vomits.

DEALER: Motherfucker!

Jake is stunned. Alonzo inspects the spattered sidewalk. SEES saran wrapped rocks.

ALONZO: Lookie those.

DEALER: That's corn.

ALONZO: That's Jimmy crack corn. One, two, three, four, five...six. How'd you swallow that shit without water?

DEALER: Fuckin' bullshit! Fuck you, civil rights violatin' motherfuckers.

Alonzo SLAPS him.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Action films are not just about what is happening, but what they mean to the characters.

Training Day (2001)(9/27/99 draft)
by David Ayer

Monday, May 11, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: To Die For (1995) - Buck Henry, Masterful Wielder of Words for Impact

[Quick Summary: Suzanne Stone will do anything to be on tv, including killing her husband.]

HOLY COW, this was a good read.

First, there is no doubt what Suzanne is all about - Suzanne on tv.

Second, she is a strong character: cold, a good manipulator, but not particularly smart. That's a dangerous combination.

Third, Buck Henry is an amazingly assured writer who knows how to wield words for the most impact.

Example #1: Here, he moves the reader quickly through a house, as the intruder did:


MOVE across the yard, up through a second floor window into the bedroom, out onto the landing and down the stairs to the front hallway, slowing to SEE a section of carpet near the front door that is a different color from the rest of the carpet, lighter, as though that section has been scrubbed clean. LOOK AT IT and BACK AWAY out the front door and TILT up at the blue sky and:
                                                                       DISSOLVE THROUGH TO:

Example #2: Here, he garners some sympathy for Suzanne. Despite her odd, cold behavior, and husband Larry who enables it, no one seems to appreciate her dream.


...Angela Maretto lets out a shriek and her hand goes to her mouth.


JOE MARETTO: Are we talking about - ?

CAROL STONE: Oh honey, when did you - ?

SUZANNE: Wait wait WAIT -- CUT. CUT! It's not that!

ANGELA MARETTO: You're not --?

SUZANNE: I'm not pregnant, for god's sake.

She laughs. They all look at her. Larry puts his arm around her.

LARRY: Suzie's got a job.


LARRY: Over at WWEN. First woman they've ever hired. Is that right?

SUZANNE: That's right.

LARRY: Our Suzie's on her way and nothing can stop her now.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When words are this sharp and this well-honed,  it is not just skill but countless hours of bloody work. Also, it is a 4th (not 1st) draft.

To Die For (1995)(4th draft, 10/25/93)
by Buck Henry
Adapted from the book by Joyce Maynard

Monday, May 4, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: A Chorus Line (1985) - Present to Flashback, Held Together By Sound

[Quick Summary: Ex-girlfriend and dancer Cassie tries to meet with Zach, the director-choreographer, while he auditions a group of dancers.]

NOTE: I always hesitate to read first drafts for this blog, but it is the only draft available anywhere, so here goes.

Purely by chance, I've read back to back the two most famous scripts about a dancer's life on stage (A Chorus Line and All That Jazz).


1) They have a wide appeal because they are not just about dancing.  Each revolves around personal, tumultuous relationship(s) that keeps us riveted.

2) All That Jazz is about one man's story.  A Chorus Line manages to also feature stories from the ensemble.

3) I liked how this flashback seamlessly moved from theater--> Zach's bedroom --> theater.  It's all visuals, held together by the tapping sound.


He is turning it on and off, rhythmically, nervously, thinking. Then he turns off the lamp and leaves it off. In the dim, available light, we see his hand nervously tapping a pen on the desk.

Shooting over Zach's shoulder, his back remains constant, but now we are in his bedroom. It is dark. On the early dawn light coming through the window. Cassie is asleep in the bed. Zach, an insomniac, is watching her. After a beat, Cassie rolls over and falls off the bed to the floor. Waking up, startled, she looks around, then seeing Zach, starts to laugh.

(During above the only SOUND we hear is the pen tapping on the desk.)


He is still tapping the pen. Thinking.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I never really thought before about sound holding together the visuals until I read this scene.

A Chorus Line (1985)(1st draft, 11/17/82)
by Arnold Schulman
Adapted from the 1975 stage musical

Monday, April 27, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: Legal Eagles (1986) - The Off-Handed Compliment

[Quick Summary: Reluctant assistant D.A. takes on the twisted case of woman accused of stealing her painting back from a shady dealer.]

This was an entertaining read, though preposterous and a mish-mash of genres (thriller, mystery, rom-com, etc.)

I did like the chemistry between the two leads, which is best seen in this off-handed compliment scene below.

Notice how his need (approval) dovetails with her need (partnership) and how it builds until the last compliment:


Logan and Kelly move into the night, crossing the street to his car. Logan is furious at Kelly's prior conduct. She, on the other hand, seems quite cheerful about things.

LOGAN (quoting): "We know those paintings exist. And we think you have them." Didn't you learn anything in law school?

KELLY (ignoring his anger): We really shook him up, didn't we? And that look in your eye at the end - pure, blue steel.  God, I'd like to develop a look like that.

LOGAN: You don't develop looks.  You just.....look.

KELLY: Not me. I practice looks in the mirror. Here's one I picked from you, by the way. Watch the left brow.  I'm cross-examining someone and he gives me an answer I don't buy. Here's the way you do it.

Kelly stops in the middle of the street, raises her left eyebrow skeptically. Logan laughs despite himself, then begin to search through his pockets as they walk again.

LOGAN: Come on, I don't do that.

KELLY: All the time. You stand there and sort of make aquarter turn toward the jury with that exact look. You totally discredited Van Dyke with it.

LOGAN: The Van Dyke case. You were in the courtroom?

KELLY: Some people go to ball games - I go to court. You're the best show in town.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  To stick the landing, off-handed compliments have to be about something deeper.

Legal Eagles (1986)(final shooting script, 10/23/85)
by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.
Story by Ivan Reitman, Jim Cash, Jack Epps, Jr.

Monday, April 20, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Crucible (1995) - One Good Line of Dialogue

[Quick Summary:  Scorned girl uses the witch hunt to accuse her ex-lover's wife.]

I did not like this script much.

Though a vengeance tale should be entertaining, I was bored.

(Perhaps because it "is a drama of ideas, but they seem laid on top of the material, not organically part of it"?)

I thought this was the best line:

PROCTOR: Sir, there are them that cannot weep and them that cannot sing --my wife cannot lie.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: All the ingredients were there, but I wasn't rooting for anyone very much.  Hence, the story didn't move me.

The Crucible (1996)(4/19/95 w/revisions)
by Henry Miller
Based on his play

Monday, April 13, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: All That Jazz (1979) - Heads Up Re: the Following Hallucinatory Ride

[Quick Summary: An brilliant dancer, who is selfish, ill, a perfectionist, sex/drug addict, and lousy in relationships, has a heart attack which delays his newest show.]

This is a film about "Fosse time":
The movie stretches and compresses and manipulates time. It jumps between past and present. It shuffles from fantasy to realty and back. And it does it with a combination of speed and grace that remains unmatched....In All That Jazz you’re everywhere at once. The movie is a biography, but it’s also a spiritual autopsy. Joe Gideon is taking stock in himself. - Matt Zoller Seitz
What I really liked was this script was CLEAR what was going on or about to happen.

As a reader, I appreciated the heads up.

Now I know this is not popular today because it adds to the length, but this side note to the reader was very helpful.  And yes, the script included the asterisks:

What follows is an elaborate production number as we see Joe (Hallucinatory) build it from beginning to end. The substance of the number is "Hurray!...Joe's Alive!!" It is Vaudeville in full showbiz terms. There will be hoofers, tenors, jugglers, a trio of girl singers, acrobats, an animal act, a magician, etc. The number is a celebration of Joe's life and his acceptance.

While we never leave the Intensive Care Room, small theatrical set pieces will be moved in and out for scenic effects: in other words, the Vaudeville is played against the reality of the Intensive Care Room.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Don't be afraid to be clear to the reader, if it's not popular.

All That Jazz (1979)(rev. 4/14/77)
by Robert Alan Aurthur and Bob Fosse

Monday, April 6, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Game (1997) - Baiting at a Vulnerable Moment

[Quick Summary: A lonely rich man is lured into a game which may or may not be real.]

I can totally see why David Fincher wanted to direct this film, since it's a story built on suspense and extremes.

I also thought it was an exploration of baiting a man who has everything.

How do you keep him motivated? Curiosity. String out answers to up suspense. 

This often requires a bit of setup, as we will see in the scene below:

- Prior to this scene, Schuyler has visited a mysterious company called CRS at the urging of a friend because "CRS will solve his problems."
- Schuyler goes for a physical exam.
- Schuyler has not heard back, and now the baiters stoke Schuyler's curiosity with rejection:


...Schuyler sits behind the desk and tilts back in his leather chair, thinking. He flips through his Rolodex, finds a number and dials it on his speakerphone. He gets a MALE VOICE this time:

GARY (filter): CRS, this is Gary speaking.

SCHUYLER: Yes, hello Gary, this is Schuyler Van Orton...I came in a few weeks ago...I'm going to be otu of town briefly and, I was wondering when, um, your service was supposed to start --

GARY (filter) (after a beat): Yes...I have you here on the computer...I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Van Orton, but apparently your application was rejected...

SCHUYLER: Really? But...forget it, thanks.

He hangs up, looks out the window with a disappointed expression.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be fooled - this script might seem plot driven but is actually 100% character driven.

 I liked that the writers knew Schuyler so well that they knew what and how to bait him to expose his flaws which give him dimension and an arc.

The Game (1997)(1/7/92 with revisions)
by John Brancato and Michael Ferris

Monday, March 30, 2020

TODAY'S NUGGET: Blue Thunder (1983) - Suspense at the Moment of Decision

[Quick Summary: Murphy, a Vietnam war vet, investigates the murder of  a Councilwoman with the help of a cutting edge police helicopter, Blue Thunder.]

I was curious to read a Dan O'Bannon script that was unrelated to anything Alien.

It's an ok script.  The main character has a serious flaw and there is character development. I did get bored about half way through.

I did like this moment below when a decision has to be made. (Kate is Murphy's girlfriend who has the incriminating videotape.)


There is much activity. They've got a chopper up there broadcasting live the biggest story in the country at this time.  Phones are ringing. People are running back and forth. She crosses up to a Security Guard --

KATE: I have a package for Mister Moyers --

SECURITY GUARD: He's very busy --

KATE: I know that. But this is from Frank -- Murphy --

SECURITY GUARD: Lady, there's a crazy man up there in a helicopter -- we got no time for --

The phone at his desk is ringing.

SECURITY GUARD: Just a minute.

As the Guard crosses to the phone, Kate looks around -- hugging her videotape - not knowing what exactly to do next.


As Icelan's buddy, Fletcher -- whom Kate has never seen before -- drifts up with a laid back smile.

FLETCHER: The most dangerous thing in the world is a little man afraid for his job -- (then) I'm Dick Fisher. I'll get that to Tony if you'd like --

As  Kate looks at him....

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Make it clear the what two things that the character must choose between.  Then leave us at the decision point to increase suspense and tension.

Blue Thunder (1983)(9/30/81 draft)
by Dan O'Bannon, Don Jakoby, Dean Riesner
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