Monday, August 14, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Blow Out (1981) - Laying Story Pipe

[Quick Summary: After recording the sounds of a car "accident," a movie sound effects guy is hunted for that recording.]

This script surprised me in two ways:

First, the plot is intriguing and fairly...well, normal (though it's De Palma, so not THAT normal).

Second, I was ok that the inciting incident* (the car accident) occurs on p.15.

- So what was happening from p. 1-14?  The writer was laying down what I call "story pipe," which is necessary to setup a situation or a setup a payoff later.**

- What is the "story pipe" that kept me turning pages from 1-14?
p. 1-8: The script opens with a maniac stalking female college students in their dorm.
p. 9-12: We see that p. 1-8 is a film within a film, and our protagonist Jack is working the sound effects.
p. 12-14: On TV, a reporter states that the Governor McRyan will be announcing his candidacy for higher office, maybe tonight.
p. 15: Jack is recording sounds at night, near a creek, and sees McRyan's car swerve off the road into the water.
- Was all that story pipe necessary? In this script, I'd say yes because it sets up why Jack is outdoors at night with a sound recorder.

ex. "Jack nods. Sam starts to pace again.

SAM: And I still don't understand what a smart guy like you is doing this shit for.

JACK: Hey, I do the sound - you do the shit!

SAM (getting mad): No - you do the shit -- like that wind in the trees. Sounds like you're whistling in the crapper.

JACK: It's out of the library. We've used it a million times.

SAM: That's the trouble. I've heard it a million times -- get something new.

Jack nods.

SAM: And what about that scream? We got to dub it.

JACK (innocently): Right. (beat) Know any good screamers?

SAM: I got a few ideas."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be afraid to lay story pipe. Make sure it isn't backstory.***

Blow Out (1981)(shooting script, dated 10/21/80)
by Brian De Palma

*Inciting incident = Act that kicks off the action

**"Story pipe" is not backstory, which is often unnecessary.

***How will I know the difference? 
a) Experience over a long time.
b) Reading more scripts.
c) From good feedback from other good writers.

Monday, August 7, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Dressed to Kill (1980) - Formatting; A Series of Shots

[Quick Summary: When a woman is murdered by a blonde, the lone witness becomes the blonde's new target.]


ME: Yes, I know.

YOU: Do you care???

ME: Nope.

YOU: Why not?! I don't get it. Everyone is so uppity about formatting.

ME: Because IF the writing shows the story so I can connect the dots...
...and IF I get swept up in the story
...and IF it makes me feel intensely for the characters
...and IF it delivers the punch, the climax, the ending
...then the script works.  I don't notice the formatting.

YOU: So what's the deal with formatting "rules"?*

ME: They are like training wheels. You use them:
- As a fallback.
- When you're unsure what the producers want.
- Until you don't need them as much, i.e., When you're the director and know how to write in a series of cinematic shots.

De Palma is a good example of the last category.

Note below:
- how it is a series of cinematic shots
- how the shots build on each other


When the elevator finally arrives, KATE steps in the car. She hears the sound of footsteps rushing down the hall. She frantically pushes the "close" button. The doors shut before the person coming down the hall can reach her. She is crying openly now and is thankful that no one is in the car to witness her shame. She pushes the lobby button and the car descends. As she pulls her finger off the button she realizes she's left her wedding ring on the bedside table.

KATE: Oh God!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Pay closer attention to how the shots build upon each other, because the sum of those shots is what the audience sees.

Dressed to Kill (1980)
by Brian De Palma

* Remember: On this blog, "rules" = guidelines.  They are not etched in stone.

Monday, July 31, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Obsession (1976) - The Secret is Not the Creepy Parts

[Quick Summary: After his wife and child die in a kidnapping, a Southern real estate investor falls into a deep emotional freeze, until he meets his wife's look alike.]

In the land of "De Palma weird,"* this story is mild, but the twist is creeeeepy.

I thought that I'd be too creeped out to read on...but it's an addictive page turner.

Why? Why is this creepy but good vs. other creepy thriller/horrors just tedious?

I think the secret is NOT THE CREEPY PARTS:

1) The secret is to lay out a character's emotional dilemma that stirs our empathy.

ex.  In this story, Michael Courtland has his wife and child stripped from him, then he descends into hell.  His wound never heals and he is emotionally stuck in 1957.

2) Now the character's RESPONSE to the dilemma can go screwy/creepy/wild.

ex.  Twenty years later, he meets a woman who looks like his dead wife. He drags her to the old places, has her wear the wife's clothes. He's unmoored and doesn't notice.

Do I really need #1? Yes.

Why can't I just do smash a bunch of screwy/creepy/wild scenes together? ** #1 teaches me to care about the characters. A stream of #2 won't hold on the reader.

Note below how the writer:
-  Lay out the dilemma (Mike's emotional vulnerability in his first date with Sandra)
-  Lay out the threat (his spying business partner La Salle)
-  Prepare us for Mike's response later when he finds out

ex. "There is an awkward moment as they say goodnight. Sandra's prepared to accept a goodnight kiss, but Michael is afraid to offer one. Instead, he extends his hand in a shy, awkward way, and she takes it.

COURTLAND: Goodnight, Sandra.

SANDRA: Buona notte, Mike.

They turn and go their separate ways. The CAMERA PANS with Courtland as he walks down the street. Suddenly it STOPS on a man watching from an alley. We ZOOM IN TO DISCOVER it's La Salle."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Take the time to first lay out the character's present emotional state and dilemma, no matter what the genre.  Otherwise, it's forgettable.

Obsession (1976)
by Paul Schrader
Story by Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader

*De Palma scripts are outliers, i.e., they lie outside the normal bell curve of weird.

"De Palma weird" = My attempt to describe this outlying weirdness level.

** This is especially true of what I call "horror porn" scripts where it is scene after scene of gruesome --> more gruesome --> gross out. There is no emotional development, and it becomes tiresome.

Monday, July 24, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Phantom of the Paradise (1974) - Showing Character Through Interactions

[Quick Summary: After a rock opera producer steals his music and his muse, an up-and-coming composer fights back to get everything that was stolen.]

I've read a lot of weird scripts in my day. This one is WEIRD.

Is it Bad Weird or Good Weird?

This is Good Weird, which was worth a second look because it had something worthwhile to say. (BTW, it took me at least 2/3 of the script before I got it.)

Notice how the writer show us what the characters stand for by using interactions:

- Swan (antagonist) is a creepy bastard, as seen by his interactions with the girls.
- Winslow (protagonist) is persistent, as seen by his disguise to meet Swan.

(FYI: If you read the scene below and feel creeped out, it's ok. That's the intent.)


Winslow, in drag, but determined to see Swan, lies on a massive water bed surrounded by skimpily clad singers.

GIRL ONE: When do we get to sing?
GIRL TWO: I don't think too much singing goes on here.
GIRL THREE: I've been here 12 times and I don't get to sing -- all I get is to come back.
GIRL FOUR: What do you do here?
GIRL THREE: You'll see.
GIRL FIVE: Can't you sing on your back?
GIRL SIX: I've never tried.
GIRL FIVE: Well, if you can sing standing up, you can sing lying down.
GIRL SEVEN: Why don't you take off your slip?
GIRL EIGHT: I'm waiting for Swan.
GIRL SEVEN: He won't miss anything, if you do it now.
GIRL FIVE: Yeah -- you're being auditioned right now.
GIRL ONE: What do you mean?
GIRL THREE (whispered): The whole place is bugged.
GIRL FOUR: You're kidding.
GIRL THREE:, Swan is watching us right now...

Suddenly Dorian enters the room from his sunken bath. Winslow leaps up, confronting him.

WINSLOW: Mr. Dorian, you remember me. I'm Winslow Leach.
DORIAN: Who let this fag in here?! (yelling to the guards) Get her out of here!

Winslow rips off his wigs.

WINSLOW: Mr. Dorian! It's me, Winslow.

The guards arrive and grab hold of Winslow.

GIRL FOUR: Hurry up, we're cooling off fast.

Dorian turns his back on Winslow and lustfully approaches the bed.

WINSLOW: Don't you remember me? Mr. Philbin gave you the music of my cantata. You're auditioning girls for the chorus. I'm Winslow Leach! I wrote it!

The guards drag Winslow from the room as Dorian slips into the rapidly cooling flesh pile.

DORIAN (to Girl Four): Hand me that telephone."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The reader can tell a lot about your protagonist (and antagonist) by how other characters react to him/her.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)(dated 11/23/74)
by Brian De Palma

Monday, July 17, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Holy Matrimony (1943) - Sight Gag

[Quick Summary: When a famous but shy painter returns to London, he takes on the identify of his recently deceased valet in order to paint in peace.]

DEEE-lightful!  This script is smart, fun, witty, and rapier sharp.

First, I had to applaud the writer* who made me laugh with a 123 word sentence with NO PUNCTUATION.  It even looks funny on the page. Gutsy move.

Second, when I chuckled at this sight gag, I knew I was in good hands:

ex. "Dissolve to:

Montage - Letter

Occupying much of the screen, the envelope is stamped and addressed to PRIAM FARRLL, ESQ. The address itself should be indecipherable. Superimposed on the letter are:

(1) English railway train.

Dissolve to:
(2) Ocean liner.

Dissolve to:
(3) Black native paddling dugout canoe up river.

Dissolve to:
(4) Black native driving primitive oxcart along dirt road.
(5) Black native runner racing through jungle."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Why does this sight gag amuse me? Is it the exaggeration? The sequencing? The economy and clarity of what he's trying to convey? All of it?

Holy Matrimony (1943)
by Nunnally Johnson
Based on the novel, "Buried Alive," by Arnold Bennett

*Nunnally Johnson is no ordinary top notch writer.  Just look at his laudable range in films: Grapes of Wrath, The Three Faces of Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Dirty Dozen, etc.

Monday, July 10, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Julia (1977) - Flashbacks That Nail the WHAT, Not the WHY

[Quick Summary: On a request from her best childhood friend Julia, Lillian Hellman is asked to deliver a package into Nazi occupied Berlin. Based on a true story.*]

My Three Thoughts:

1) My hat is OFF to you, Mr. Alvin Sargent. This is an incredible script.

When was the last time that I didn't want a script to end? I cannot remember.

2) For a tutorial in suspense, do NOT miss the train scene at the end.

3) I like flashbacks, but only if you know how to use them.**

Here, Sargent is extremely precise in how he's using flashbacks: To nail the protagonist's present emotions.  What is Lillian feeling now? (Not WHY, but WHAT.)
Notice the FLOW of the next three scenes (I have edited for length):
Scene #1 - Lillian is in shock at the request.  She must decide by tomorrow and doesn't have any guarantees.
Scene #2 - Flashback of Lillian in trouble. Fear --> trust in Julia.
Scene #3 - In the present, Lillian walks in a daze. The flashback shows us the war inside her, i.e., WHAT she's feeling inside now.

[Lillian is in Paris and has not heard from Julia.  Then Johann, a friend of Julia's, shows up with a request: Would Lillian smuggle money to Berlin for Julia?

Lillian asks for time to decide.  Johann walks away.]

Another angle Lillian

walking on the path.

JULIA (O.S. - young girl): Lilly, you don't have to come this way. Go down under. Wade across.

Cut to


Angle on a fallen tree which serves as access from one side of a relatively deep ravine to the other. Water rushes down the ravine. Julia and Lillian (children) have approached the tree. They study the pros and cons, Lillian with some trepidation. Finally, Julia moves with great alacrity across the fallen tree. Lillian remains on the edge of the ravine behind her. She is contemplating the depths. Quiite clearly her fear is increasing.

Angle on Julia

on the tree trunk as she reaches the other side. She looks back toward Lillian.

Her P.O.V. Lillian

Standing frozen in the distance.

Full shot

We wait a moment for Lillian to decide. Finally she makes her move. Carefully, she puts one foot on the log....

as Lillian continues on slowly. She moves closer to the other side. Finally, she is only a few yards from making it. She freezes again. We can feel the panic coming on her. She is about to lose her balance and starts to get down to her knees, but she slips off the log. As she does, she throws her arms around it and holds on for dear life. She is hanging beneath the log.

JULIA: Pull yourself up!
LILLIAN: I can't!
JULIA: Hold tight - just hold tight.

[Julia pulls Lillian up on the log. They are safe!]

....Closer shot Lillian and Julia

as they lie on their sides, exhausted.

LILLIAN: I'm sorry.
JULIA: It's all right.

She looks at Lillian like a good teacher, smiles.

JULIA: You'll do it next time.

Cut to


walking on the path. The gardens are breathtaking, but Lillian is oblivious to everything around her, even a line of schoolchildren who nearly bump into her as they move with their teacher along the path."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I didn't notice the flashbacks. (That's how I knew they must have been unusually well crafted.)

Julia (1977)
by Alvin Sargent
Based upon the story by Lillian Hellman

*The forward notes that there is still great debate whether Ms. Hellman's memoirs and recollections are entirely true, or all or partly fictional.

**The "rule" says to not use flashbacks.  Why? Because it's too often used to dump information. That is lazy. Don't do that.

Monday, July 3, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) - Personify the Inner Conflict

[Quick Summary: A tribunal decides the innocence or guilt of four German judges who were on the bench during WWII.]

How do you make a 1948 war crimes trial that lasted 8 months appealing? Relevant?

This script could've been a boring trial, but writer Abby Mann* kept it interesting:

- The story follows Justice Haywood (played by Spenser Tracy) who is a fish-out-of-water. He is very curious, and takes us outside the courtroom into every day life.

- I expected the courtroom scenes that follow the prosecutor, defense attorneys, etc.  However, I did not expect so many character scenes outside the courtroom.

- I really liked how Mann structured the story to show Haywood's inner conflict about judging other judges' innocence or guilt:

1) We see glimpses of the inner conflict, here and there, mixed with humor.**

2) Mann personifies the German point of view through the character of Mrs. Berholt, a German widow with whom Haywood bonds with over music.

She represents the Germans (like her husband) who did not want the Nazis in power, but were swept up in the mess, and falsely accused of crimes and punished.

She makes Haywood face the fact that the issues are not black and white:

"ex. MRS. BERHOLT: What did he know about the crimes they cited him for? (pause) He was placed on trial with the other military leaders. He became part of the revenge which the victors always take on the vanquished...(simply, devastatingly) was political murder. (pause. Quietly look at Haywood) You can see that, can't you?

Pause. There is a moment. Haywood speaks finally. Obviously terribly moved by what she has said but not looking at her.

HAYWOOD (finally): Mrs. Bertholt. I don't know. (pause) I don't know what I see. (pause) I shouldn't be here right now talking to you. But I want to understand. I want to understand. I have to.

Mrs. Bertholt looks at him a moment. The stooped, agonized bulk of man sitting on the couch. She realizes how fully he is involved with his case and how much he really wishes to do what is right.

He is giving back to her the memory of the people in America that she had most come to admire. There is a moment.

MRS. BERTHOLT (gently): Would you like some more coffee?

HAYWOOD (quietly): Yes. I would.

Mrs. Bertholt begins to pour."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One way to show the protagonist's inner conflict is to set him/her against another antagonist/friend/bystander who strongly takes one side in the conflict.

Now the protagonist's inner opinions will be brought out in the open.

Judgment at Nuremburg (1961)
by Abby Mann
Adapted from his 1959 teleplay (play here)(original 1959 video broadcast here)

*FYI: Mann is also the writer who brought the great Kojack (1973) to tv.

**The glimpses were just enough.  I so appreciate that it is not heavy handed conflict, ALL THE TIME.  Otherwise, it would have felt like a lecture.

Monday, June 26, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: My Man Godfrey (1936) - Simple + Complex

[Quick Summary: Godfrey, who lives at the town dump, is whisked away to become the Bullock family's butler.]

Two related thoughts:

1) Writer Taylor Sheridan repeats a 'rule' that I knew but didn't quite grasp:*
Simple story --> Allows room for complex characters, i.e., a character piece.
Complex story --> There's essentially room only for simple characters.
2) I find the above concepts helpful when reading such crazy, off the wall screwball comedies such as My Man Godfrey.  How did they do that?!

The story is indeed SIMPLE.  The writers broke it down into five parts:

1 - Godfrey is hired.
2 - Godfrey is introduced to the highly entertaining, odd family.
3 - Godfrey's secret is exposed.
4 - Godfrey is pseudo-blackmailed and his anonymity is challenged.
5 - Godfrey quits.

Now we have more room for the characters to play in COMPLEX conflicts.

In the scene below, notice:
a) How much fun it is to watch the characters bounce off each other.
b) Complex & complicated = requires a lot of space on the page. 

BULLOCK - father
ANGELICA - mother
CORNELIA- older daughter
IRENE -  younger daughter
CARLO - mother's 'protegee'

ex. "BULLOCK's face shows that he is furious.

BULLOCK: Well, who would know what they're talking about, living with a bunch like this. There is one thing I do know - what this family needs is discipline. I've been a pretty patient man - but when people start riding horses up the front steps and parking them int he library, that's going a little bit too far.

Bullock has crossed to the doorway and addresses himself at this point to Irene.

IRENE: Horses?
ANGELICA (rising): Are you insinuating that I rode a horse up the front steps last night?
BULLOCK: Maybe that wasn't a horse I saw in the library this morning.
ANGELICA (holding the dog, sits down): Well, I'm positive I didn't ride a horse into the library because I didn't have my riding costume on and I hope you're not insinuating that I should ride a horse into the library without my riding costume on.
CORNELIA (now seen in a close-up; seated): It was Irene who rose the horse - up the front steps.
IRENE: What horse?
CORNELIA (again, visible, in a close-up): Don't try to be innocent. I begged you not to do it.

Irene walks angrily over to Cornelia.

IRENE (accusingly): I didn't ride a horse - but if I did ride a horse - Who broke those windows on Fifth Avenue?
CORNELIA: What windows?
IRENE: You know what windows. And how about the college sap? Yah! Yah! Yah!
BULLOCK (going over to them): And I don't care who broke the horse or rode the windows up the steps or who yah-yah-yahed - (seen in a close-up now; excited) - This family has got to settle down!
CARLO: Ooooh!
ANGELICA (out of sight): Will you stop bellowing! (Seen standing; indignantly) Look what you're doing to Carlo.
BULLOCK (furious): Hang Carlo!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm learning that Simple + Complex is one limitation of writing for film.**

My Man Godfrey (1936)
by Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch
Based on the novel by Eric Hatch

*And you know my opinion on "the rules" (here).

**Writing for film is different than other writing.

When writing for things to be SEEN... 
- A complex story with complex characters may/may not be possible to be shot.
- Zooming in and out of a character's internal thoughts may/may not be possible to be seen.

Both the above would be easier to do in a book form vs. film.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Dreams (1990) - The "Rules"; Helpful Example of Suspense

[Quick Summary: A series of 11 short film episodes based on dreams by the director.]

TWO THOUGHTS: (Ok, 1 rant and 1 thought)

1) First, I heard that there were "rules" of screenwriting.

Then I heard that there were no "rules."

Then I noticed screenwriting nitpickers abhor using the word "rules," even though it's a useful term.* 

My opinion?  I think "rules" equals "guidelines." **

Do you need to know the "rules"?  Yes, you need to know them so that you know what you're doing when you break them.

For example, the "rules" say that writing episodic scenes are a no-no...

...Except this script is ELEVEN episodes that are meant to be seen together.

It works here. If it works, it wins.

2) In this script, I liked some of the episodes better than others.

However, the one undeniable thread through all of them is a feeling of SUSPENSE.

It comes from uncertainty and wondering, "What is going to happen next?"

Note how it builds because we cannot predict either characters below:

ex. From the episode "Crying Devils":

"Seeing me, he braces himself as if under attack by a wild animal. "Are you human?" he growls.

Startled, I stop short and nod.

He looks me up and down, as if evaluating, seemingly reluctant to accept my reply as fact.

"Who are you?" I venture.

He glares at me. Then his face gnarls with pain and he crouches.

"What's wrong?" I ask. "Something the matter with you? Are you sick?"

I move closer, but he jumps back like a beast and glares at me again. After a few moments he relaxes and runs a filthy hand through his matted hair, revealing a horn on his head.

Shocked, I jump back. "Are you a devil?"

The man's face contorts again. "Maybe. But I used to be a human being."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When writing suspense, allow room for uncertainty in both the protagonist and antagonist.

Dreams (1990)
by Akira Kurosawa

*TIP: Don't be a nitpicker.

** Thus, the "rules/guidelines" means "possibly helpful, tried and true patterns"  It does NOT mean 'set in stone' or 'applies in every situation.' 

Monday, June 12, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Ran (1985) - Setting Up/ Paying Off the Comeuppance

[Quick Summary: Based on King Lear. The Great Lord Hidetora turns over his empire to his eldest son, and it triggers in-fighting and great destruction.]

I feel bad for Hidetora, but I also don't. 

He obtained his land by violence, and now it's coming back to bite him. Ironic, yes?

My favorite "gotcha" moment is the scene below.

1) How the writers innocently set up Hidetora for a big payoff.  I didn't see it coming.
2) How they get us to empathize with the occupant.  This is key to making the comeuppance more emotionally satisfying.


...TANGO: Excuse us for coming in with our shoes on, but our lord was suddenly taken ill... [Setup: Hidetora and company barge into someone's house. So unclassy.]

He steps up on the wooden floor and, together with Kyoami, carries Hidetora over to the hearth and, laying him there, addresses the occupant of the house, seemingly a woman.

TANGO (looks at the occupant): He is wet. Do you have something to cover him with? [More setup: Then they demand help. No 'please'? No manners?]

The occupant stays seated and does not move.

TANGO: Answer me, woman!

OCCUPANT: Are you talking to me?


The occupant of the house silent rises and goes to a corner of the room. Tango and Kyoami watch the person suspiciously. The occupant, seen from behind in the dim light, appears to be looking for something. [We get why the occupant is reluctant to help these intruders.]

The occupant rises and comes over, silently handing something over. Tango receives it - it is folded clothing. He opens it, puts it on Hidetora, and stares in surprise. It is a beautiful robe with a colorful design, out of keeping with the humble hut. Tango and Kyoami are amazed and curious as they look at it.  [1st surprise/payoff: They are wrong about the robe.]

TANGO: Speak up...woman!

OCCUPANT: I am not a woman. [2nd surprise/payoff: They are wrong about the occupant.]

TANGO: What? It is so dark, I... Bring me a lamp.

Tango reaches for a stick of lighted firewood in order to take a good look at him, and notices a cane leaning by the side of the hearth.

TANGO: I am sorry. Is your eyesight poor?

He holds up the stick of firewood. The occupant of the house is illuminated in the light from the burning stick. It is the face of a blind but handsome youth. Kyoami pulls back with a start and looks at Tango. [3rd surprise/payoff: They're wrong about his disability.]

TANGO (shocked, gazes at the youth): Are you Lade Sue's younger brother...Master Tsurumaru?


Hidetora sits up, turns his eyes, and stares at the youth. Then, his voice trembling, he mutters with a frightened voice.

HIDETORA: Tsu...Tsurumaru?

TSURUMARU: It has been a long time...Lord Hidetora.

HIDETORA: Do you remember me?

TSURUMARU: How could I forget you? I was just a child, but how could I forget the one who gouged out my eyes in exchange for sparing my life...the day you burned down my father's castle?" [4th surprise/payoff: They've dug themselves a deep well. We see why Hidetora should be ashamed and feel justified at his current comeuppance.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When there's a good setup and payoff, we see why the comeuppance is justified...and it feels so cathartic!

Ran (1985)
by Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni & Masato Ide
Based on "King Lear" by William Shakespeare
Translated by Tadashi Shishido