Monday, February 20, 2017

2017 OSCARS: 20th Century Women (2016) - Conveying Uncertainty and Vulnerability

[Quick Summary: Dorothea (55), her son Jamie (15), the renter upstairs, Abbie (28), and Julie (17) try to make sense of life in the 1979.]

In this script, Dorothea tries to connect with her son, but it's awkward and imperfect, as real life parenting often is.

To me, this script really stands out because it conveys the day-to-day uncertainty and vulnerability of life so well as a parent, a child, or just a person.

I liked how each character continues to pursue their needs in the face of uncertainty.

I liked that the writer allows the characters to be hurt and vulnerable, i.e., human.

For example, in the scene below:
- Dorothea (mom) wants to connect with Jamie (son)
- Jamie wants to be cool and grown up and doesn't know how
- Abbie wants to "jam on" and forget her present life


Jamie  and Abbie sit together, listening to The Raincoats - Fairytale In The Supermarket.  Abbie's looking at the cover, Jamie's looking through her other records.

Dorothea appears in the doorway, observing her son, and his obvious love of this. She enters, sits down and listens with them, an awkward moment.

DOROTHEA: What is that?

ABBIE: It's The Raincoats.

She nods awkwardly to the beat, trying to relate.

DOROTHEA: Can't things just be pretty?

JAMIE: "Pretty" music's used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

DOROTHEA: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

He just looks at her - 'why're you still here' - she looks at him confused by his pushing her away. Seriously curious.

ABBIE: Yea, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

CU on Dorothea feeling like an outsider, lost."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For me, the gateway into these characters were their uncertainties and vulnerabilities. 

I connected because they didn't have all the answers, but kept trying.

20th Century Women (2016)
by Mike Mills

Monday, February 13, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Manchester by the Sea (2016) - Flashbacks that Expand Present State of Mind

[Quick Summary: After his brother dies, a building custodian goes back to his hometown as his nephew's guardian, and faces the ghosts that haunt him.]

I did not expect to like this script as much as I did.

(A very reliable friend had told me, "Great dialogue. Too slow.")

Though I haven't seen the film yet, I found it deeply moving on the page. 

Two thoughts:

1) It reads extremely fast.  Always double points!

2) It is an unusual use of flashbacks to peer into the main character's (Lee) present state of mind.  He experienced trauma a few years ago, but it is still raw.

His emotional state then = His emotional state now.

In the scene below, Lee makes a positive statement about Dr. Betheny --> The flashback expands on his POV of Dr. Betheny, but it is not an "information dump."


Dr. Muller and Lee ride down very slowly.

LEE: How is Dr. Betheny?

DR. MULLER: Oh, she's doing very well. She just had twin girls.

LEE: Oh yeah. Irene told me.

DR. MULLER: Apparently weigh about eleven pounds apiece. So she's gonna have her hands full for a while...I'll call her this afternoon and tell her what happened.

LEE: She was very good to him.

DR. MULLER: Yes she was.



JOE CHANDLER, Lee's older brother by five years, is lying in the hospital bed. There's a close resemblance between them.

ELISE, Joe's wife, the same age as Joe, pretty, anxious and high-strung -- stands near to STANLEY CHANDLER -- Lee and Joe's father, 70s. He sits in one chair. LEE sits in another.

They are all listening to DR. BETHENY, 30s. She is small, intense, very serious and focused and level-headed, but thoroughly well-meaning and decent. The bed area is curtained off from the other patients in the room.

DR. BETHENY: The disease is commonly referred to as congestive heart failure --

ELISE: Oh my God!

DR. BETHENY: Are you familiar with it?

ELISE: No...!

JOE: Then what are you sayin' "oh my God" for?

ELISE: Because what is it?

JOE: She's tryin' to explain it to us, honey. I'm sorry, Dr. Beth...uh...

DR. BETHENY: Betheny

JOE: I'm sorry. I can never get it right.

DR. BETHENY: Don't worry about it. Not a problem."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Flashbacks are interesting when used to show a stuck character's present state of mind.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
by Kenneth Lonergan

Monday, February 6, 2017

2017 OSCARS: La La Land (2016) - Seduction & the Slippery Slope

[Quick Summary: In modern L.A., an actress and jazz musician struggle with making compromises while chasing their dreams.]

BAD NEWS: I liked it, but didn't love it.

GOOD NEWS: There's a lot going for it.  It's focused, full of emotion, and hope.

I especially liked how it shows:
- Success as a slippery slope.
- Seduction is the first step on that slope, and it often is a small, innocent step.

In this story, the main character (Sebastian) wants to open an old school jazz bar of his own.  He has resisted modern elements, and is scraping by.

When a modern jazz band offers him big bucks, he reluctantly agrees to meet.

Watch below how success with this band pulls him further from his dream: 

ex. "KEITH: Let's play, see how it feels.

He pulls out a guitar. Cole starts on drums. Keith joins in. Malcolm and Tom follow suit. Sebastian listens. It sounds like modern jazz - electronic in feel, but still jazz...

Sebastian approaches the keyboard. Joins --slowly, one step at a time. Then begins playing out a bit more, his fingers starting to race. Malcolm gives Keith a look: "Damn.". Keith gives Malcolm a look back: "I told you so." Bit by bit, Sebastian eases into the groove. This isn't so bad...

Then -- Keith move to a LAPTOP. Introduces a DRUM-MACHINE SAMPLE.

Sebastian, into the music, is caught off-guard. Uneasy now. This isn't him...

Keith plays a riff on his guitar. Tom echoes it on bass, then Malcolm on trumpet. Now it's Sebastian's turn. He hesitates. And then -- finally -- he plays the riff...

It doesn't feel so bad. The guys build on the riff. Sebastian keeps up with them, trying to let go of his presuppositions. [This bolded line is my emphasis. This is why seduction works. How can this small step be harmful?!]

After all --these guys can play ..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Seduction down the slippery slope often begins with one small innocent step...and then another...

La La Land (2016)
by Damien Chazelle

Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Hell or High Water (2016) - Showing What the Character is Thinking

[Quick Summary: Two brothers go on a spree robbing banks to save their family ranch, while two Texas Rangers track them down.]

What a beautifully written script! Spare, economical, and bristling with energy.

It suits the story, which is about two brothers who survive on their wits and nerves.

The script stays lean by often "showing, not telling" what the characters thought.

In the scene below, how do we know Marcus does not want to retire?


MARCUS HAMILTON, two weeks shy of 70, thick silver mustache, sits at his desk. A large Texas flag tacked to the wall behind him.

He looks over a LETTER from the DPS HEADQUARTERS in Austin. The heading says it all: Mandatory Retirement Referendum.

The letter is worn at the edges -- Marcus has spent a fair amount of time looking it over. [Clue #1: Well worn retirement letter = He's been studying it. This is the setup.]

Marcus packs a can of Copenhagen with fifty year's worth of skill, and sticks a pinch inside his lip.

A younger Ranger, and by younger I mean 50, walks in. His name is ALBERTO PARKER, and aside from his olive skin, he looks almost identical to Marcus: thick mustache, beer belly, gold star on a starched white shirt, bone colored Stetson hat.

PARKER: You hear about these bank robberies?
MARCUS: Why you always dress like me? [Clue #2: He prolongs things. Why?]


PARKER: This is our uniform.
MARCUS: We ain't got no uniform. You can wear any color shirt you choose. You just keep choosing mine.
PARKER: Texas Ranger regs say white, blue, or tan dress shirt. Stands to reason every so often we gonna end up dressed the same.
MARCUS: Well, they say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Alberto. Did you know that?

Alberto is half Comanche and half Latino, though his twang is as pronounced as any cowboy.

PARKER: Wanna hear about these bank robberies or just sit there and let Alzheimer's run its course?
MARCUS: Where at?
PARKER: First Texas in Archer City and First Texas in Olney.
MARCUS: FBI looking for an assist?
PARKER: Ain't theirs. First Texas ain't got branches outside the state. Not interstate commerce.

A flicker of fire ignites in Marcus's eyes. [Clue #3: The hunt stirs him.]

PARKER (cont'd): You may get to have some fun before they send you to the rocking chair yet.

Marcus's chair squeaks as he leans back.

MARCUS: ... I may have one hunt left in me." [Clue #4: He admits what he wants. This is the payoff from earlier.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  How do I know if the reader will catch on to the 2 +2 that I crafted? Simplest is best.

Here, the scene was crafted so that:
the letter (setup) + idiom in the dialogue (payoff) = He doesn't want to retire.

Hell or High Water (2016)
by Taylor Sheridan

Monday, January 23, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Little Women (1933) - Change of Pace = Change of Progress

[Quick Summary: Four sisters come of age during the American Civil War.] 

Two thoughts:

1) I hate the bland description "coming of age", but it's the best I can do here.

2) The pacing is absolutely killer, and among the best I've ever seen.*

The introduction to the script describes it this way:
The adaptors made use of a large variety of episodes, with sudden changes of pace within the individual scenes. These contrasts increase the drama and add to the suspense, because, in effect, they advance or retard the aims of the main character. Even the most casual events are so arranged as to emphasize these contrasts. For instance, the gay spirit that pervades the Christmas breakfast scene is suddenly changed to one of sympathy for the plight of a more unfortunate family...p. 214.
There's no formula, but the writers varied the pacing FOR SPECIFIC REASONS:

➤Sometimes they wanted the uncertainty first (fast; What will the party be like?)
--> Quiet moment in the middle (slow; Will Beth get over her shyness?)
--> Then a happy note at the end (fast; We're all friends now!)

➤Sometimes they had a happy scene (fast; Jo and Laurie) --> Then end on a somber note (slow; Jo leaves for the city).

➤Sometimes the writers wanted to stretch the tension (slow-slow) --> Then suddenly release the tension (fast-fast).   Note the stretch below with Amy and Mr. Davis --> then release after leaving Mr. Davis.

ex. "SCHOOLROOM - CLOSE SHOT. Amy is sobbing. Davis turns over the slate which has cartoons of himself on one side of it.

DAVIS (angrily): I can see there's nothing for me to do but stop by and show your mother how, instead of doing your sums, you cover your slate with sketches -

INSERT: SLATE with sketches of spectacled teacher, and legend: "Young ladies, my eyes are upon you."

DAVIS: -- most uncomplimentary sketches.

SCHOOLROOM - MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS, looking down, sternly. Amy is heard sobbing.

CLOSE-UP AMY looking up in his direction, sobbing as she pleads:

AMY: Oh, please, Mr. Davis. I'll never do it again, sir. And she'd be so disappointed in me. Please -

MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS looking odwn in Amy's direction. He relents.

DAVIS: Well I should hate to spoil her Christmas and for that reason alone, young lady, I shall overlook it.

CLOSE-UP AMY looking up in his direction, delightedly.

AMY: Oh, thank you, Mr. Davis!

MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS looking down.

DAVIS (sternly): You may go!

CLOSE SHOT as Amy speaks gratefully:

AMY: Oh, thank you, Mr. Davis.

He exits as CAMERA FOLLOWS HER as she backs away toward the cloakroom, still speaking.

AMY: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you, sir. (She starts to open door.)

HALL CLOAKROOM - CLOSE SHOT. The girls are standing about waiting in excited speculation as to Amy's fate. Amy enters, drying her tears. The girls close the doors and swoop down on her, all talking at once and asking: "What did he do?" "What did he say?"

AMY (with lofty disdain): I just said that if I ever told my mother the way he treated me, she'd take me out of his old school. She's never been reconciliated anyway, since my father lost his money, and she's had to suffer the degarradation of me being thrown with a lot of ill-mannered girls -- (she turns at the door, drops some of her elegance, and gives it to them straight:) -- who stick their noses into refined people's business! (She leaves them flat. They look after her, then turn to each other and murmur indistinctly.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Change of pace = Changes as the protagonist advances/retards his/her progress. 

It's also invisible, like rhythm, but very much felt by the reader.

Little Women (1949)
by Sarah Y. Mason & Victor Heerman
Adapted from the novel by Louisa May Alcott

* After all, this was written for George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn.

Monday, January 16, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: 12 Monkeys (1995) - Cues & Repetition (Transition Helpers)

[Quick Summary: A prisoner from the future travels back in time to prevent the mutation of an epidemic virus, but everyone thinks he's a lunatic.]

This script is crazy.  It circles back and eats itself (in a good way).

I applaud the writers for attempting this fractured time line and keeping it clear.

It's as if they took 4 photographs (A, B, C, D) and sliced it into pieces.  They then reassembled them, but still moving story forward (ex. A1, C1, B1, A2, D1, B2, etc.)

I was so impressed at the clear transitions (my most elusive nemesis!)

I discovered two more helpful tips for smoother ones:

1) Cues
2) Repetition


...YOUNG COLE turns back toward the Security Check Point just as TRAVELERS scatter madly, some diving to the floor, others running. A TERRIFIED TRAVELER, hitting the floor close by, loos up at YOUNG COLE with panicky eyes, and asks... [Repetition of a recurring dream]

TERRIFIED TRAVELER:  Just exactly why did you volunteer?


COLE comes abruptly awake. [Cue that Cole has been dreaming.] Seated now, he's facing the SCIENTISTS. [Cue that reorients the reader to the present.]


COLE: Uh, I didn't hear the...

MICROBIOLOGIST: (tapping a pencil on the table) I asked you, why did you volunteer? [Repetition from above]

COLE: Well, the guard woke me up. He told me I volunteered. [Repetition from earlier scene]

The SCIENTISTS react, whispering urgently among themselves."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When you need to reorient the reader to multiple times and places, cues and repetition are your friends.

12 Monkeys (1995) 
by David Peoples & Janet Peoples
Inspired by LA JETEE, a Chris Marker Film

Monday, January 9, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Lady for a Day (1933) - 10 Sequences; "Glorified Hokum"

[Quick Summary: Panhandlers and con men rally around their fellow Apple Annie to make her a "lady for a day" to impress her daughter and rich European fiancee.]

This was Robert Riskin's first film with Frank Capra.*

It is not my favorite, though an entertaining ensemble story.

Two things that intrigued me:

A) Riskin broke the story into 10 "sequences":*** 

1- Everyone loves Apple Annie. She writes a letter to her daughter, who grew up in Europe. (4 scenes)
2 - Annie's daughter is coming to the US for the first time, and doesn't know Annie has been lying about her social status. (8 scenes)
3 - Fellow panhandlers ask Dude, a gangster who considers Annie as his lucky charm, to help pull off an elaborate hoax. (4 scenes)
4 - Hoax get complicated, including a fake husband for Annie. (7 scenes)
5 - Daughter arrives with fiancee and suspicious future father-in-law. (13 scenes)
6 - Duke smooths the way for a party for the engaged couple, including making a nosy reporter temporarily disappear. (2 scenes)
7 - Father-in-law asks uncomfortable questions. Duke has panhandlers trained to be respectable party guests. (10 scenes)
8 - Police put pressure on Dude, as 3 reporters go missing. (4 scenes)
9 - Spirits are low. Dude rouses the troops with a speech. (4 scenes)
10 - Big resolution. The couple leaves for Europe. Happily ever after. (37 scenes)

If I had to group them:
- Act 1 (1, 2, 3)
- Act 2 (4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
- Act 3 (9, 10)

B) Why does Dude and everyone else go to such lengths for Apple Annie? 

Out of heartwarming human decency for a friend. I liked that.

Cynics may say that it's just hokum, but I do not care.

"Glorified hokum" gives me hope and I'll take it any day. ***

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Any time I spot a grouping of scenes, it gives me food for thought. I always ask, "Why were they grouped that way?"

Also, I'm a sucker for well done, glorified hokum.

Lady for a Day (1933)
by Robert Riskin
Adapted from a story by Damon Runyon

*Capra must have really liked the story since he remade it 28 yrs. later as "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), his last film.

** The # of scenes are slightly misleading, as they include intercutting.

*** "Unquestionably this is a script in which the deft handling of situations and characterizations makes of an ordinary story a piece of glorified hokum. And hokum, well done, makes excellent entertainment!" - Editor of the published script, p. 25.

Monday, January 2, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Lost Horizon (1937) - When the Protagonist Has No Internal Motive

[Quick Summary: A group is kidnapped and flown to Shangri-La, but it's not as idyllic as it seems.]

Ooof. Tough adaption.

I gather that the novel was problematic to adapt for film.

For example:
- The protagonist gets to Shangri-La and is seduced by its charms.
- Then he wants to leave, but there's no real motive to go.

A passive protagonist is ok in a novel, but in a film? Yikes!

So, the writer did what had to be done: He added things that were not in the book.*

He gave the protagonist a brother, George, who wants to leave Shangri-La and is not deterred. It's not a glamorous fix, but now there's a motive for the protagonist to act.

ex. "MARIA: (a little hurt) You promised to come for tea yesterday. I waited for so long.

GEORGE: I'm sorry. (chagrined to discover he has no cigarettes left) I haven't even got any cigarettes left!

MARIA: I'll make some for you! (pleading) You will come today?

GEORGE: (after a pause) Perhaps.

MARIA: (tenderly) Please say you will. The days are so very long and lonely without you. (a whisper) Please...

GEORGE: All right. I'll be there.

MARIA: (happily) Thank you.

GEORGE: (suddenly) You'll tell me some of the things I want to know, won't you? You'll tell me who runs this place. And why we were kidnapped. And what they're going to do with us?

From the moment he starts to speak, her face clouds. George's voice continues without interruption.

GEORGE'S VOICE: Chang's been lying about those porters, hasn't he?

She runs off, frightened."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm surprised at how many changes were made, including a new external motive, and the novel's author was STILL HAPPY. 

I find this extremely instructive. Keep the book's structure, if you can.

Lost Horizon (1937)
By Robert Riskin
Adapted from the novel by James Hilton

* Amazingly, the author approved as he "knew the rules of the game": "Of course, he had to change several things; he asked me about them all. They were none of them important. If you wrote them all down I suppose it would sound as though they'd made a lot of changes. That wouldn't be fair. None of the changes are structural. They don't affect the theme or the central story."  p. XVI. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) - Adaptions; Using P.A., Intercutting

[Quick Summary: When small town Mr. Deeds goes to the big city to accept his $20M inheritance, he experiences love and heartbreak.]

Two thoughts

1) Why are adaptions tricky? Here's what's required: 
It is one thing to read an appealing play, novel, or short story, and quite another to organize it properly a screenplay, opening it up and lengthening it (or shortening it), making the myriad choices of keeping a character here and deleting one there, adding a scene, incident, or crucial detail, writing appropriate dialogue where dialogue is necessary, and ending up with something that is whole and organic and also cinematic. Unfortunately, Hollywood history is full of examples of great works – short stories, novels, and prize-winning plays – ruined by clumsy adaption, or faithfully transcribed unto tedium. Intro, p. XXXV.
2) Robert Riskin was a master adapter.  What is one good piece of advice from him?

Limit the use of parallel action or intercutting between scenes:
Parallel action (if, in the use of it, we can be guided by a rule) should scarcely be used except in instances where the two actions are related to each other - story-wise, or where some social observation is being made via action. Intro, p. XXXV.
So when would it be appropriate to use parallel action or intercutting?

In the court scene below, witnesses are called to testify about Mr. Deeds' behavior.  The testimonies are all related, and also build a fuller picture together.

A policeman in uniform.

POLICEMAN: They kept hollering: "Back to Nature! Back to Nature!" I thought they looked harmless enough so I took them home. I never thought he was cracked.
                                                                                                 WIPE OFF TO:

The waiter at "Tullio's."

WAITER: I'm a waiter. He kept pressing me to point out the celebrities, and so help me Hannah I'm coming out of the kitchen a coupla minutes later and there he is moppin' up the floors with them. I never figured he was a guy looking for trouble.
                                                                                                WIPE OFF TO:

Mme. Pomponi.

MME. POMPONI: (expostulating) He threw us out bodily! but bodily!
                                                                                                WIPE OFF TO:

Of one of the bodyguards on witness stand.

BODYGUARD: We hired as his bodyguard, see? Well, the irst crack out of the box, he throws us in a room and locks the door, see? Now, if a thing like that gets around in our profession, we'd get the bird - see? So I says to my partner, "Let's quit this guy, he's nuts!"
                                                                                                  WIPE OFF TO:

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Riskin pointed out to me that parallel action is a grouping of two (or more) related actions.  Grouping! Never thought of that before.

It's a repetitive rhythm, and may affect how your script "feels." 

It's similar to a repeated note in music, and should be used with care. 

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
by Robert Riskin
Adapted from the story by Clarence Budington Kelland

Monday, December 19, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: American Madness (1932) - Showing an Abstract Concept Like "Faith"

[Quick Summary: Three intertwined stories: A bank president fends off a merger; his bank manager faces a murder charge of the night watchman; and thieves steal $100k which starts a run on the bank.]

The original title of this script was "Faith," as in "faith in one's fellow man."

I really enjoyed the script because it is an excellent example of showing an abstract concept without talking about it.

Two helpful hints:

1) It's easier if the characters' problems are very personal and in close proximity.

ex. Matt is loyal to Mr. Dickson, who gave Matt a bank job.  Last night, Matt suspected Mrs. Dickson of getting in trouble and went to stop her.

Matt is now accused with of shooting the night guard. He can't tell the truth, otherwise Mr. Dickson will find out about Mrs. Dickson.

Mr. Dickson cannot understand why his loyal employee won't tell the truth.

2) Make sure the character earns the virtue. 

It may help to pinpoint the end concept and engineering backwards from that point.

Here, we want to show faith (Act 3), so we start the script with the opposite (Act 1 temptations to believe the worst), and test our characters (Act 2).

In this example, we will see a testing (Act 2) with very personal, immediate problems:

ex. "DICKSON: (to Inspector) Wait a minute. Wait a minute. (to Matt) Matt, do you realize you're up against something? You're being charged with murder. It's serious, son. Now com on. I know you didn't do it. (gestures toward Inspector) But we've got to make them believe it. Come on, tell the truth, where were you last night?

MATT: (doggedly) I can't tell you.

Matt maintains a determined silence.

DICKSON: (getting an idea) Listen, if I get them out of the room, will you tell me?

Matt looks at him. Dickson is the only person he cannot tell  his secret to.

MATT: No. I won't.

DICKSON: You're protecting somebody.

MATT: No. I'm not Mr. Dickson!

DICKSON: Yes, you are. You're protecting somebody Now listen, it doesn't make any difference who it is. It can't be as important as this. Now come on, tell me. Where were you last night? (a note of desperation) Come on, don't be a fool. Matt, you trust me, don't you?

No reply from Matt. Dickson is heartsick. He turns, helplessly, away from Matt and walks out of Sampson's office."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: "Show, don't tell" is especially true for abstract concepts.

The easiest way to lose an audience is to talk and talk about the concept.

American Madness (1932)
by Robert Riskin