Monday, April 24, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Halloween II (1981) - Delivering the Promise from the Opening Shot

[Quick Summary: Picking up from the first film, Laurie is transported to the hospital, where she and others are stalked by Mike Myers, who is still alive.]

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

The stakes are high and it's scary, but...it feels like Halloween 1, the second half.

I guess I'm still not sure what makes a sequel good to meet people's expectations.

GOOD NEWS: I think the opening is a real crowd pleaser.

It acknowledges the loyal audience, "We know why you came: For scares!"

ex. "FADE IN:

MAIN TITLE SEQUENCE

In the middle of a black screen is a pumpkin.

A jack-o-lantern. Two candles on either side cast a flickering orange glow on the carved, grinning face.

CAMERA SLOWLY DOLLIES IN on the pumpkin.

SUPERIMPOSE MAIN TITLES.

Finally the pumpkin FILLS THE SCREEN. The final credit is SUPERIMPOSED.

Then suddenly the pumpkin CRACKS OPEN from top to bottom!

Underneath the meat, pulp and seeds that pour out is a wet, gleaming skull!

                                                                                                                  DISSOLVE TO:
BLACK SCREEN."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I like a script that knows what it is, and delivers.

Here, this is a horror script and it delivers the scares from the opening shot, i.e., the audience knows it's in good hands.

Halloween II (1981)(shooting script, dated 3/12/81)
by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Monday, April 17, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Escape from New York (1981) - Antagonists + 1 Goal = Unity & Clarity

[Quick Summary: Convict Snake Plissken has 24 hrs. to find and rescue the U.S. President in NYC, which now is essentially a prison island ruled by the Duke.]

What I like about John Carpenter scripts: They are very clear.

For example, Escape is about a man vs. his environment.

It could've been confusing because there are multiple antagonists:

First, Plissken commits a crime, then
--> He is jailed
--> He's offered his freedom if he rescues the President from NYC, a place so treacherous that the police avoid it.
--> He arrives in NYC (p. 41) and ducks and dodges criminals to locate the President*
--> He finally meets the biggest antagonist, the Duke (p. 84)*

I think the script was so clear because it has the unity of a single goal, i.e., no matter how many obstacles, Plissken focuses on finding the President and getting him out.

ex. "PLISSKEN: Mister President...

The man turns around. He is DRUNK. He holds a bottle of awful-looking yellow liquid. He wears the President's coat and the vital signs bracelet. He grins drunkenly.

DRUNK: I'm the President. Sure, I'm the President. I knew when I got this thing I'd be President!

Plissken grabs him.

PLISSKEN: Where'd you get it?

DRUNK: Woke up. There it was. Like a miracle!

Holding his arm, Plissken WHACKS the vital signs bracelet against the wall!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Go ahead and create multiple antagonists!

(As long as you have a unity of goal to keep the story focused, that is.)

Escape from New York (1981)(shooting script, dated 6/10/80)
by John Carpenter and Nick Castle

**I was surprised that Plissken gets to NYC so late, and meets the big Duke even later, but it works here!

Monday, April 10, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Fog (1980) - How Long Before the Bomb(s) Detonate(s)?

[Quick Summary: On the evening before its centennial celebration, a small northern Californian town and its citizens are attacked by vengeful supernatural fog.]

Let's say you know there is a bomb under the table.

How many pages into a script do you have to know WHY it was placed there?

In this script, the writers were able to postpone it until p. 45! That's amazing.

So how did the writers keep us interested between p. 1-44?  I found a few hints:

- There are multiple bombs detonating all the time.
- The bombs are not all the same.  ex. The first one is like a smoke bomb, i.e., destructive but not deadly.
- The bombs happen at random, like shark attacks.
- The citizens have to figure out that bombs are happening. 
- Then they have to discover the bombs have a pattern.

I don't want to spoil the reveal WHY, so here is a sample of an early "smoke" bomb:

ex. "INT. CAR

...Nick puts the truck in gear and starts up again. The MUSIC onthe radio ends and Steve's voice comes on.

STEVE (voice over radio): It's four and a half minutes after midnight and let me be the first to wish Antonio Bay a Happy Birthday. We're one hundred years old today!

Suddenly the driver's window next to Nick SHATTERS wildly into a million pieces!

ANGLE ON FRONT WINDOW

The entire front window SHATTERS, BLASTING inward!

ANGLE ON ELIZABETH

She SCREAMS and the passenger window CRASHES in on her!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's ok to postpone the WHY of a bomb. 

We can build suspense in the meanwhile: who might be a potential victim; the consequences for the town during a public celebration; etc.

The Fog (1980)
by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Monday, April 3, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Halloween (1978) - Delivering a Gripping Script on a Low Budget

[Quick Summary: A babysitter and her friends are stalked by evil Mike Myers who has just escaped an asylum.]

Three Things I Find Fascinating About This Script:

1) Carpenter made it for $300k and thought it didn't need a sequel:
But Michael Myers was an absence of character. And yet all the sequels are trying to explain that. That’s silliness – it just misses the whole point of the first movie, to me. He’s part person, part supernatural force. The sequels rooted around in motivation. I thought that was a mistake.
2) Mike Myers is a super-scary character BECAUSE he has no motivation:
But it was a movie where the main character, the guy in the mask, really isn’t altogether human. He has no characteristics. He's, uh, almost like a machine. He was just pure evil. That was what I intended to do. It's evil out of nothing, evil from no background, which completely creeps me out as a human being, that evil could arrive at my doorstep without a purpose, without a past, without an origin. So that's the idea behind it. It was put together to scare you. That’s all.
3) This script reads very fast, and does not read like a low budget film. Why?

I think it's because Carpenter:
- knew the film was going to be done on the cheap
- knew he had to deliver the scares
- knew that he had to deliver SOMETHING that didn't require stunts, car chases, etc.

So he cranked up the levels of tension about what was to happen next (also known as Hitchcock's "bomb under the table.")

ex. "[Dr.] Loomis glances at Marion as she lights a cigarette. She shoves the matches into the pack and tosses it on the dashboard. Loomis stares at the cigarette pack. The pack of matches reads: "The Rabbit in Red Lounge -- Entertainment Nightly." Loomis turns his eyes back to the rain-slicked road. [This is a setup for a later payoff.]

LOOMIS: Ever done anything like this before?
MARION: Only minimum security.
LOOMIS: I see.  [This feels bad.]
MARION (defensively): What does that mean?
LOOMIS: It means ... I see.
MARION: You don't have to make this any harder than it already is.
LOOMIS: I couldn't if I tried. [Yes, it is really bad.]
MARION: The only thing that ever bothers me is their gibberish. When they start raving on and on... LOOMIS: You don't have anything to worry about. He hasn't spoken a word in 15 years. [This is really, really bad! I am anxious. What is next?]

Both of them suddenly stare out the windshield in front of them.

POV THROUGH WINDSHIELD -- FIELD

Through the rain we see a field off to the side of the road. Dimly lit by the car headlights are FIVE PATIENTS, dressed in wind-blown white gowns, drenched by the rain, wandering aimlessly around the field."  [So, so bad! HOW WILL THIS END??!!]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I like that this script puts the focus on what it can do (increase tension), and not on what it cannot (big effects, CGI).

It does not whine about its budget nor try to overcompensate ("aren't we clever!")
  
Halloween (1978)(shooting draft, dated 4/10/78)
by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Monday, March 27, 2017

2016 OSCARS: Moonlight (2016) - Explaining A Bit of Local Jargon

[Quick Summary: Told at three ages, this story follows abandoned Little/Black who is struggling in Miami to survive life and figure out his sexuality on his own.]

As I was reading this script, I didn't really pay attention to the setting.

Later, I realized how important Miami is to this particular story and filmmakers.

Without the beach, the ocean, and sunny temperatures, it's a different story.

Miami also has its own lingo, as every metropolitan city does.

I liked how the writer explained a bit of local jargon without dumbing it down or insulting the reader's intelligence. 

It is matter of fact and informative (the insult is insulting, but not too insulting):

ex. "Black nodding.

BLACK: Can't picture bein' in Miami with no car, man.

KEVIN: Yeah it's real out here.

BLACK: I bet.

KEVIN: Real slow, real hot, real busted, got me like a duck out here.

Both laughing at that, you can be called a lot of things in Miami and next to snitch, duck is about the worst."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be afraid to explain a bit of local jargon, if it helps the reader understand context. 

Without the explanation, I would've been clueless if "duck" was a good or bad thing.

Moonlight (2016)
by Barry Jenkins
Based on "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue", by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Monday, March 20, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Lion (2016) - After the "All is Lost" Moment; Coincidence

[Quick Summary: Twenty five years after being lost in an Indian railway station, Saroo, who now lives in Australia, struggles to identify his small Indian hometown and family.]

Q: How does one EARN an "all is lost" moment?

A: A character tries, and tries, and tries, but cannot accomplish a goal --> He/she falls into despair, depression, discouragement, i.e., "All is Lost" (AIL).

Q: But then how does he/she RECOVER (or NOT) from it?

A: A few suggestions:

- First, recognize that AIL is a turning point. Now life will either get better (something positive happens) or worse (something negative).

- Second, after the AIL moment, the recovery (or not) moment needs to be truthful.

It does not have to be big, drastic, or unusual.

It's even ok if it seems coincidental because it does happen in life.

In this script, Saroo tries, and tries --> All is Lost --> The recovery seems to happen by coincidence, by chance...but it's the truth!

ex. "INT. LIVING ROOM, BEACH HOUSE - NIGHT

....Saroo slumps down on the couch. End of the road. He has to move on too.

Over on the Wall: that mess he's just made. [Here begins the All is Lost moment.]

The laptop sits open on the couch. He leans across, places his finger on the trackpad, follows a train line -

- then starts to flick the track pad, faster. So that before the station has time to reach full resolution -

- he flicks again, carelessly, without method.  [He's mad that all his efforts have failed. He is careless, which is a natural reaction to failure.]

And suddenly - it's a kind of goodbye - he veers off the rail line completely - out over land - and more land -  [He's on a destructive spree.]

- doing on the SCREEN what he just did on the WALL -

- random shifts, here, there, left, right. Jerky. EVERYTHING starts cascading in his psyche, as his memories make their final fight for life. So we see MAD SNIPPETS and FLASHES:

GUDDU - COAL THEFT - DAM - JOY - UNDERPASS - STREETS - WATERMELON ACCIDENT - HIDE AND SEEK WITH SHEKILA AND KAMLA.

- and on and on it goes - interwoven with the Google Earth search on screen, as Saroo carelessly continues flicking the cursor, saying goodbye to the search as his past and his memories disintegrate into fragments -  [More images that equate to a middle finger, "burn it all down" mentality.]

He stops. Exhausted. His face perfectly blank. Equally randomly now, he tap-tap-taps on that "Zoom Out" minus sign. 

He ZOOMS OUT, higher. Higher. We're now staring down on a good chunk of India.

Scrolling, Saroo flicks quite a distance left. Still just random moves. We are now way outside the search perimeter.

Nothing maters. Flick, flick. Who cares? [He's exhausted. All is Lost moment ends.]

And then: something stops him. He tilts his head - [The recovery begins here. Hope?]

ON THE SCREEN: an expanse of ochre fields.

He pulls the laptop onto his thighs. Something about that COLOR. Still as the Sphinx, he stares at the screen."  [On the one hand, it seems like coincidence. On the other, it follows naturally from the destructive behavior. Like a phoenix rising from ashes.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The AIL moment is a turning point.

The recovery (or not) moment after AIL can be wild or "coincidental", but must be truthful.

Lion (2016) 
by Luke Davies
Based on the book A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley

Monday, March 13, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Hidden Figures (2016) - Style (Showy) vs. Substance (Story)

[Quick Summary: Katherine Goble/Johnson works through the mathematics and politics of a 1962 workplace to help put an American into space.]

**clapping**

Three Reasons I Applaud This Script:

1) This is probably the fastest that I've read an Oscar script.

2) It totally sucked me into another place and time (so rare).

3) Some scripts are a pain to read because style (showy) wins over substance (story).

This script was a pleasure to read because style was always in service of story.

For example, the story opens on Katherine as a child. She is above average smart. 

How would you have shown how smart she is?

Does another child mock her? Does she get an award? Show off? Spout off?

The writers chose a less showy, but more effective way that keeps us on track.  (Also, I feel this probably reflects more truly of who the real Katherine is):

ex. "In darkness, the voice of a little girl. Counting.

LITTLE GIRL (V.O.): 14, 15, 16...prime. 18, prime.  [A little girl knows what a prime number is?!]

EXT. TREE LINED PATH - DAY

A pair of little feet navigates down a gravel path. Kicking a pine cone.

LITTLE GIRL (O.S.): 20, 21, 22, prime, 24, 25, 26... [I didn't know what prime numbers were until high school. And here, she's counting...for fun.]

Pulling up, we reveal: KATHERINE COLEMAN (8), a peculiar, quiet, mouse of a child, wearing glasses bigger than her bookish face. Counting to herself. 

A VOICE (her Mother's) in the distance hollers out:

JOYLETTE COLEMAN (O.S.): Katherine! Come on now!

Katherine looks up. Sees a car stopped at the end of the path. She runs off. Counting all the way."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked that the writers did not try to shoehorn the characters into outlandish situations (showy). 

Instead, they got out of the way and allowed the characters' traits to surface, and that created conflicts more organically.

ex. Katherine thrived on data, but Man #2 withheld data, claiming she didn't have 'clearance' --> She figured it out anyway and left Man #2 with egg on his face.

Hidden Figures (2016)
by Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly

Monday, March 6, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Fences (2016) - When a Play Format Works in a Screenplay

[Quick Summary: Troy and Rose, a black couple in 1957, struggle with life's disappointments and unexpected curve balls.]

I used to be a self-righteous script snob: "You can't do...", "You shouldn't do..."

I say "self-righteous" because I'd read a lot of books on writing scripts and listened to a lot of podcasts about scriptwriting, but had not actually READ a lot of scripts.

Then I read and studied a lot of scripts. A lot, a lot, a lot. It took longer than I'd liked.

This screenplay, Fences, is in play format.*

My former self would've screeched, "That's wrong formatting!"

But my wiser self today says: "Who says it's wrong? It works here. That's smart."

This script was written this director and cast, some of whom had done the play.

It delivered what was needed to tell the story (characters, tone, mood, etc.), and little of what is not (ex. details on the house).

Note how the writer lays out the essentials (character, conflict), i.e., Rose's contradictions let us know that Troy is a unreliable narrator.  All else is imagination.

ex. "ROSE: I told him if he wasn't the marrying kind, then move out they way so the marrying kind could find me.

TROY: That's what she told me. "Nigger, you in my way. You blocking the view! Move out the way so I can find me a husband." I though it over two or three days. Come back -

ROSE: Ain't no two or three days nothing. You was back the same night.

TROY: Come back, told her... "Okay, baby...but I'm gonna buy me a banty rooster and put him out there in the backyard...and when he see a stranger come, he'll flap his wings and crow..." Look here, Bono, I could watch the front door by myself...it was that back door I was worried about.

ROSE: Troy, you ought not talk like that. Troy ain't doing nothing but telling a lie.

TROY: Only thing is...when we first got married...forget the rooster...we ain't had no yard!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Forget "rules." Use whatever works to convey your story.

(Ok, ok, there are guidelines that might help, but I don't like calling them 'rules.')

Fences (2016)
by August Wilson
Based on his play

* Fences was originally a stage play, and was adapted into a screenplay by the playwright.

Monday, February 27, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Arrival (2016) - What They Don't Tell You About Transitions, i.e., Linking

[Quick Summary: A linguist establishes contact with 12 alien "shells" to find out why they have come to Earth.]

I scoff that I once thought transitions were easy.

It is just "getting in and out of scenes," right?! Nope. There's more.

I liked what Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer, and a hoot on Twitter) tweeted:
TODAY'S CHALLENGE: Transitions. Remove the slug lines (INT./EXT.) and examine scene relationships. 
When I don't have a slug line announcing a new scene for readers, it forces me to forge a cinematic link between them.  I start to think about why and when I'm leaving one scene, and how it connects to the visual or audio of the next one. But the stronger you bind one scene to the next, the more you protect them from unnecessary changes later. More and more, I'm learning that great storytelling is about the relationship: of two shots, of two scenes, of two characters, etc. (1/30/17)
Transitions are what link a scene(s) together.

Without those links, the reader will: 1) not get your vision, and/or 2) stop reading.

Let's try to identify the links in this scene:

ex. "INT. BARRACKS - MORNING

ON A LAPTOP SCREEN: Aerial footage of the Shell appears. Back from a safe distance. The Shell looks, as always, intimidating.

But now with the footage is a SINISTER SCORE added by shock-jock radio host RICHARD RILEY, who emphasizes words -- [This scene opens on tv footage on a laptop screen.]

[For brevity, I cut out Riley's dialogue here.]

REVEAL the LAPTOP is in:

The military barracks. And PRIVATE LASKY listens intently to it. Nodding. Glancing out the open flaps of the barracks tent toward the giant Shell in the distance.

[We see we are in military barracks.  This establishes our location.]
[The 1st POV is Lasky, who agrees with the shock jock.]

Three bunks over, a group of SCIENTISTS watch a news program on a separate TV, following riots somewhere. Could be Prague, could be Detroit. One SCIENTIST shakes his head in disgust. Outside, Louise walks past the barracks, on her way to --"

[The 2nd POV are the scientists, who are concerned about the rioting.]
[We glimpse a 3rd POV, Louise.]
[Note how this one scene shows three distinct POVs, without any dialogue. This links them AND contrasts how each one feels about the present events.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked the idea that the stronger my transitions, i.e., linking scenes, the bigger the chance that they will stay in the final draft.

Arrival (2016)
by Eric Heisserer
Based on the story, "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang

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

ex. "INT. ABBIE'S ROOM - NIGHT

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