Monday, August 22, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Blow Out (1966) - Challenging Script = Thinking Outside the Box

[Quick Summary: A swingin' 1960s London photographer thinks he may have photographed a murder in progress.]

I hate stale, lazy writing.

To stay fresh and sharp, I will occasionally pick a thought provoking, challenging, often thorny, script to read.*

This script meets all those criteria.

It was a game changer in 1966 (mostly for the graphic nudity), and captured the feel of 1960s London.  I think its themes of youth and ennui are still relevant.

So why is this script challenging?  Well, it has a thriller feel, but no firm solution. You can't read this for the format (paragraphs of action). People move around, but not much happens on the outside.

"Wait! We aren't supposed to do that!" you say.

Yes, and this is where the script requires you to work a little harder.

You have to suspend every thought of "What's the point?" and just go on the ride.

For example, I learned that the writers are not all that interest in plot (setups and payoffs).  They are interested in realism and a character wakening to an internal life.

They don't care about answers. They do want you to walk away feeling deeply.

ex.  "GIRL: I... I've come... I've come for the photographs.

Thomas eyes her curiously.

THOMAS: Well, how did you manage to find me?

The girl avoids his eyes.

GIRL: Do you live here?

THOMAS: Mmm....

Thomas switches on a few scattered lights, motions her to sit down, and switches on the record player. The music is a very slow guitar.

THOMAS: Drink?

She wanders about as if looking for something.

Without waiting for her to answer he pours two whiskeys, and turns in her direction with the glasses.

THOMAS: What's so important about my bloody pictures?

Camera follows Thomas as he goes up to her, now settled on the couch, to give her the glass. She holds him with her eyes.... Doesn't take the glass.

GIRL: That's my business.

Thomas puts her glass down. She gets up and stands stiffly opposite him. Both are obscured by an overhead beam. Close-up of Thomas, drinking and saying as if recollecting a pleasant memory:

THOMAS: The light was very beautiful in the park this morning. Those shots should be very good. Anyway, I need them.

Close-up of the girl, leaning against a cross-beam. She is tense, insisting...

GIRL: My private life's already in a mess. It would be a disaster if...

She moves away."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script taught me that it's possible to move an audience, without things I expect (3 act format, answers neatly tied up, etc.) 

A new tools to use now!

Blow Out (1966)
by Michelangelo Antonioni & Tonino Guerra

* I like the superb blog Cinephilia and Beyond, which often points me to films and directors that I have not heard of before, and probably would not ordinarily find.

Monday, August 15, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Strip Search (2004) - Hypocrisy; Visual Irony

[Quick Summary: Several stories, in 2 parts.  After 9/11, the same line of questioning is used for 2 interrogations in 2 countries.  One is "acceptable," the other is not.]

This script made me uncomfortable, and it should.

If I had to summarize the theme, it would be "Hypocrisy: You can dish it out, but you can't take it."

In one story, the writer uses parallel situations in the US and in China: 

- When the US gov't questions and humiliates a character born in another country, it seems acceptable.

- But when China questions and humiliates a US character - with the exact same questions, tone, actions, etc. - it is unacceptable.

This is not a "feel good" or (apparently) popular film. But it is thought provoking.

(I wonder if it would have been different if it was a satire?)

I found that mere juxtaposition of the same dialogue for the US scenes and then the China scenes allows the audience to put 2+2 = Hypocrisy.

Also, the writer then added this scene as a summary of our attitude today. Note the visual irony of the last line:


MCGRATH buys hot dog from VENDOR, as JOHN SCANLON, newspaper reporter, calls to him.

SCANLON: Yo, Ned --

MCGRATH turns, sees SCANLON, groans.

SCANLON (cont.): I hear you fellows made a bust today, arrested some terrorist.

MCGRATH: Who told you that?

SCANLON: I never reveal my sources. This terrorist --

MCGRATH (bites into hot dog): I don't know what you're talking about

SCANLON: Ned, come on --

MCGRATH: We haven't arrested anyone, that's the truth.

SCANLON: Are you holding anyone? Questioning anyone? Sticking a hot poker up some poor towel-head's ass?

MCGRATH (eats): No comment.

SCANLON: At least give me the schmuck's name --

MCGRATH: No comment. (eats) You know the way these "schmucks" manipulate the judicial system -- and the media -- to their advantage.

SCANLON: My editor's been biting off my dick. Tell me something --

MCGRATH: You give me your source, I'll see what I can do.

SCANLON shakes his head, frustrated.

SCANLON: Ned, come on, this is me. We've always helped each other out. I spin for you, you spin for me. Remember in Kazakhstan --

MCGRATH (finishes hot dog): Ancient history, pal, back before the flood.

MCGRATH tosses napkin into trash can, goes. On SCANLON, looking up at where the World Trade Center used to be...

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I need to be more aware of how the juxtaposition of scenes (A, B, C) build on one another (A+B+C) to equal (= D) what I want the audience to conclude.

Strip Search (2004)(final draft; dated April 24, 2003)*
by Tom Fontana

*This was a tv movie on HBO, directed by Sidney Lumet.

Monday, August 8, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Night Falls on Manhattan (1996) - Dealing With Moral Grey Areas

[Quick Summary: A new assistant D.A. is about to win a big case in which his father, a narcotics cop, is wounded while apprehending a dope dealer, but it all falls apart.]

Recently, I saw a comment on Twitter that the increased online outrage over films was because audiences today do not know how to deal with negative emotions.

This thought intrigued me.

How do we write stories that deal with negative emotions? Grey areas?

Can't we just have happy, happy stories? (NO. It's unrealistic, and worse, it's boring.)

For me, Sidney Lumet was a master of delving into moral grey areas. 

He didn't shy away from taking you through the fire and seeing the bleakest of human behavior, yet his films always ended on a hopeful note.

This script is exceptionally grey, complicated, and human.

I think there are two keys to this script:

1) Everyone is shown with BOTH heroic and selfish traits.
2) No one can escape the tough decision(s).  Good men do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

ex. "MORGENSTERN: Sean, when we capture Jordan, and we will, he's going to be tried. It's the easiest case this office will ever have. He left one empty gun behind. His prints are on it. And I'll bet you whatever you want ballistics to find bullets in one of those four cops that came from that gun. He's the worst dope dealer in Harlem, a murderer of his own people, a monster. As I said: easiest case to ever come in this office. I hope they get him alive. Because I want him put on trial by this office. And you know who the prosecutor is gonna be?

Elihu smiles.

MORGENSTERN (cont): You, Sean. You're gonna try him.

Elihu's smile freezes on his face. Sean looks pole-axed.

MORGENSTERN (cont): That's right. You Sean. (to Elihu) You're looking at me like I'm crazy.

ELIHU: Well - Morgy - with apologies to you, Sean - Morgy, it's a giant case. Sean has never tried anything this close to this, in size, in importance.

SEAN: Mr. Morgenstern -

Morgy starts to cut in.

SEAN (cont): Morgy - Mr. Harrison's right. I'm too inexperienced - A mistake could -

MORGENSTERN: There's no problem here. My son would win this case and he's not out of high school. And he's stupid. This case is not complicated....

He eases Sean out of the room, crosses to his desk, pops a pill. Elihu is sitting in stoney silence.

ELIHU: Why are you doing this?

MORGENSTERN: He's at the top of the class. It's a simple case. I got a feeling about him.

ELIHU (after a pause): You mean it?

MORGENSTERN: You bet your goy ass I do.

ELIHU: You realize I'll have to resign.

MORGENSTERN: So, resign.

ELIHU: Morgy, I'm senior trial counsel. Turning this over to anybody but me is an insult that's incredibly damaging to me.  To my career. But to turn it over to an ADA with eight months experience is more than insulting. It's shocking, humiliating. It's unacceptable.

MORGENSTERN: Listen to me, you prick. You think I don't know what's going on? The walls have ears, my friend. Those planted stories in the papers? Morgenstern is old, Morgenstern's got heart problems, Morgenstern's lost his touch. That's your work, Eli. You and that goddamn PR firm you hired. You though I didn't know? I got lots of friends, Eli. People owe me."


Night Falls on Manhattan (1996)
Based on the book by Robert Daley, "Tainted Evidence"

Monday, August 1, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Running on Empty (1988) - Specificity: Helping Others Read Between the Lines

[Quick Summary: After years on the run with his parents, Danny, a talented pianist, applies to Julliard, which starts a chain of painful and freeing events.]

How do you get an audience to "read between the lines"?

How do you explain things to readers without TELLING them?

Perhaps one clue comes from Rogert Ebert, who gave this film four stars, wrote:
Lumet is one of the best directors at work today, and his skill here is in the way he takes a melodramatic plot and makes it real by making it specific.
Hmmm...specific? What does that mean?

This script is very specific, and I think that is why it's such a great read.

I noticed that the scenes have a specific intention, a specific purpose to accomplish.

Each character also has a specific intention, which often conflicts with others.

The more specific the movement or words, the more unspoken implications are understood.

- The scene intention: To show the family moves often.
- Character intentions: The boys express sadness. Mom comforts, yet is realistic.


The two boys from the earlier scene are lying on the motel bed watching the news. The woman is seated next to them on the bed. She's taking pins out of her hair.

HARRY (seeing the dog): There's Jomo.

WOMAN: You two get out of your jeans and into bed.

No one makes a move.

HARRY (still talking about the dog): What's gonna happen to her?

WOMAN: Someone will take her home.

Harry doesn't appear convinced.

HARRY: We never had to leave her before.

WOMAN: I'm sorry, kid."

- The scene intention: To show Annie/Mom has past feelings for visitor Gus.
- Character intentions: Annie tries to maintain normalcy. Gus drags up romantic feelings.


Gus and Annie sit on the floor with coffee mugs. Annie leans against the foot of the couch. Gus rolls a joint.

GUS: You haven't changed a bit, Annie.

ANNIE: We better keep to discipline. It's Cynthia. (she's silent a moment) I've changed. (but she's not going to tell him about it) Under this Miss Clairol is a grey bush.

GUS (he's not to be so easily deflected): I look at you and I see you standing on the corner of Michigan Avenue in a Mexican blouse and big silver earrings.

ANNIE: That was a long time ago.

GUS: How's Artie?

This question has many levels. She knows it and answers ambiguously.

ANNIE: He's okay. He did some work in Florida on a toxic waste dump. Here he organized a food co-op. And he's trying to get his restaurant to unionize.

He didn't mean this.

GUS: How are you and Artie?

She answers this the same way.

ANNIE: We're okay. It's hard.

GUS: I think about you.

ANNIE: I think about you. (now she qualifies it) I hope you're safe.

GUS (looking around): How do you manage this? Kids. A house. A regular life.

ANNIE: I'm a good liar.

She puts down her cup and stretches out on the floor. He watches her.

ANNIE: God, I'm tired.

GUS: Here. Give me your feet."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've never really considered how to show the character's specific intent through action.  It makes sense that More Specificity = More Clarity.

Running on Empty (1988)(3rd draft, dated 1/20/87)
by Naomi Foner

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Garbo Talks (1984) - Using Non Sequiturs in Comedy

[Quick Summary: A dedicated son seeks high and low to fulfill his dying mother's wish to meet Greta Garbo.]

This is a comedy.

...which ISN'T an exciting fact, except this IS a Sidney Lumet directed comedy.

...which IS exciting because Lumet did not direct many comedies at all. (In fact, he's states that he's not very good at comedy.*)   

OK, so the execution of the script may not have hit it out of the park.

But is the script good??!  Why did it attract Lumet, Anne Bancroft, and Ron Silver?

The script is a tremendous work of comedy. 

I wonder how many hours it took to hone, and hone, and hone so the comedy became this sharp.

I particularly liked how the script portrays the mother Estelle through non sequiturs.

Estelle is eccentric and maddening, but sane. 

I liked that she would choose a non sequitur and run it all the way to its furthest conclusion.

These "logical" non sequiturs fit this character well. They are broad, but not wacky. They rail against injustice, and champion the underdog.


comes over.


ESTELLE: I'll have the chicken salad plate.

The waitress writes it down.

GILBERT: Just coffee.

ESTELLE (to waitress): You don't reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. That's very nice.


She hasn't the slightest idea what Estelle is talking about. Estelle sees her consternation and explains, pointing to the bottom of the menu.

ESTELLE: In the south, restaurants used to print, 'We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone' on the bottom of  menus ---


Convulsing in his chair with embarrassment:

GILBERT: Mother, for Godssake!


She ignores him.

ESTELLE: They did this to keep black customers out. They would lie and say it was to keep out drunks, but everyone knew differently. You still see it on menus today. It's nice to see it's not on yours.

WAITRESS (after speechless beat): Anything else?"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  When Estelle goes off on a rant/non sequitur, it seems random but it is not.
She has a purpose in mind.

From a writing standpoint, it's a great way to sneak in the character's point of view on topics, while still delivering laughs.

Garbo Talks (1984)(undated)
by Larry Grusin

*I have not seen the film, but this fact could very well be true, if Roger Ebert's one star review is to be believed.

Monday, July 18, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Greystoke (1984) - When You're Ahead of Your Time

[Quick Summary: A human baby is adopted and raised by African apes.]

I do not normally read early rough drafts.

However, this one stirred my curiosity.

First, this draft is solely written by Towne.

Second, he must not have liked the rewritten version, as he used a pseudonym in the credits.

After reading Towne's undiluted vision, I can see why he and the producers probably didn't see eye to eye.  It is an inventive script, but years ahead of its time:

- This is a story about Tarzan mastering the raw, primal jungle elements, which I liked.  (More commercial fare would probably focus on Tarzan and Jane, or how Tarzan adjusted to society.)

- It's nearly a silent film, i.e., apes don't talk. (I liked this, but others might prefer more dialogue.)

- Energetic action chases in the trees, killing a bushpig, etc. well suited for using CGI...except this script was written in 1977 when CGI wasn't possible.


who has grown more frenzied, charges from behind  her and actually grabs at her baby, tearing it out of her arms, shaking the screeching little ape at the stormy sky as he plunges toward the trees.


is horrified. She lets out a frenzied scream herself and chases after Silver Beard.


she catches up to him, bites him on the neck and nimbly plucks her baby out of Silver Beard's grasp.


is astonished at being challenged. His shock turns to rage. With a roaring scream, he takes off after Kala.


clinging onto her back leaps into the trees in an effort to elude Silver Beard."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Let your imagination really soar, even if the current technology isn't ready yet.

This script could easily be bought today, though it is 39 yrs. old. Its emotions are still THAT engaging.

Greystoke (1984)(draft dated 8/4/77)
by Robert Towne
Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Monday, July 11, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Yakuza (1974) - How to Tell a Story: Drama, Transitions

[Quick Summary: An American goes to Japan to rescue a friend's daughter who has been kidnapped by the criminal yakuza.]

Would I have green lit The Yakuza in 1974 (Sydney Pollack, Robert Mitchum)? YES.

Would I green light The Yakuza today? YES.

So what sets Robert Towne scripts apart?  Quite simply, he knows how to tell a story.

"Tell a story?!" you scoff, "How hard is that?!"  Beat. "So how does he tell a story?"

The short answer: I don't know.

The long answer: I still don't know, but I see a few helpful clues in his scripts.

First, he understands drama.*

Second, he understands transitions. This is not simply getting in and out of a scene.

It is getting in, getting out, emphasizing important points, moving the story forward, all without shouting, "LOOK AT ME!"

In the scene below, watch how the writer:
- moves the story from the sedan to the gravesite
- shows that this is an honorable woman
- emphasizes that this is an important woman, without saying, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT, HONORABLE WOMAN, AND SHE IS IMPORTANT TO KILMER
- moves us from the gravesite to Kilmer's office


driven by a chauffeur. Tono sits stiffly in back. CAMERA FOLLOWS as it drives past an old cemetery. HOLD on the cemetery and PUSH IN to the figure of a lone woman dressed in kimono standing front of a grave.


MOVING PAST ancient shinto grave stones. Lantern shaped and rust colored in the grey light. MOVE INTO TIGHT SHOT of the woman who kneels in front of the grave. The CAMERA STUDIES her beautiful face MOVING IN EVEN TIGHTER until her eyes, nose and mouth FILL THE FRAME, and the IMAGE BECOMES:


of the woman (twenty years younger). It sits on a cluttered desk. There is the SOUND of a ticker tape over, and then a voice on an intercom:

VOICE (OVER): It's twelve thirty, Mr. Kilmer."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Know your job: Study drama MORE. Study transitions MORE.

The Yakuza (1974)(dated 12/18/73)
Draft by Robert Towne
Story by Leonard Schrader

* Frankly, there's no shortcut except to read the classics, read everything, read, read, read (see John Logan's advice to read classics for language in his BAFTA lecture here).

Monday, July 4, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Two Jakes (1990) - Two Drafts; Opening Sequence

[Quick Summary: Older and wiser, Jake Gittes is embroiled in a confusing case of cuckolded husband, cheating wife, and the dead man's widow.]

Scripts change from concept to production. A LOT.

This is why I generally avoid previous drafts...

...except this week, I read two drafts of Robert Towne's The Two Jakes.

I WANTED to see how Towne made changes to his scripts.
Yes, yes, yes, Towne's scripts are not always pretty on the page.

They tend to be long (140-180 pgs.), convoluted, and full of paragraphs everywhere.

But in an era of copycats, his scripts stand out: an original voice, a grasp on what's missing in today's films, i.e., drama (see essay), and something interesting to say.
GOOD NEWS: These two drafts (1984, 1985) did not disappoint: a good script, with good bones, complicated characters, everyone is guilty.

BAD NEWS: I was disappointed by how little changed (or needed to be changed) from the 1984 draft to 1985 draft.  Towne seems to have had a solid base from the start. (Sigh.)

I do not know how close these are to the final version, but I leave you to ponder the wonder of the opening shot.


The glove leather of the shoes contain feet crossed at the ankles, cocked on the heels and nestled up against one another like a pair of love birds.  From time to time the shoes separate an inch or so, then give one another a playful tap - the wire on the recorder moves continuously however, winding tautly around itself. The red light on the machine intermittently flashes to indicate sound levels.

BERMAN'S VOICE (rehearsing, but shaky and nervous): '- oh no, oh no, oh no Kitty, you told me you were going to Murietta Hot Springs and now I find you here at -'

The shaky recitatif breaks off. The shoes have separated, poised in anticipation.

WALSH'S VOICE (a stage whisper): ' - the Bird-of-Paradise Motel -'


an anxious and olive skinned man sitting in front of Gittes' desk and shoes.

BERMAN (going on): ' - the Bird-of-Paradise Motel - in Redondo Beach at two in the afternoon on October 21, 1948 with this man - '

The shoes bump rudely into one another and GITTES sits up into FRAME, visible along with his legs and shoes.

GITTES: Mr. Berman, it's very unnatural for a man to discuss what year it is when he's staring at his wife in bed with another man -

BERMAN: But my lawyer said -

GITTES: - we'll establish the date, let us worry about that. Just -

He gestures gently but firmly in the direction of the recorder."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I picked the wrong two drafts to examine for clues on "how to solve story problems."

I did learn a new word from them, though: "tryptich."

The Two Jakes (1990)(draft dated 10-28-84)
The Two Jakes (1990)(draft dated 2-25-85)

Monday, June 27, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Frenzy (1972) - How Hitchcock Hides Exposition

[Quick Summary: An innocent ex-R.A.F. officer is accused of two murders, while the real serial murderer is on the loose.]

Yes, yes, yes, Hitchcock scripts are filled with Stuff We Do Not Do Today:

- Lots of shots and directions
- Long length (148 pgs. here)
- Long paragraphs.

BUT they are excellent examples of how to tell a story.

For example, humor is an excellent means to distract and hide exposition:


Oxford, sitting at the table, watches apprehensively as his wife brings the tureen of soup from the kitchen, and puts it down on the table. His worry increases as she starts to ladle it out, and strangely shaped objects are seen to plop into his soup bowl along with the liquid.

MRS. OXFORD: It's a soupe de poisson, dear. I know you'll enjoy it.

OXFORD: I have no doubt of it.

If there is any irony in her husband's last statement, Mrs. Oxford appears to be unaware of it. She moves off towards the kitchen.

MRS. OXFORD: I've just got a couple of things to do in the kitchen. Won't be a minute.

Left by himself, Oxford stirs his soup thoughtfully.

MRS. OXFORD (V.O.): Well, what's new in the case? (mocking him) Any sensational breaks?

OXFORD: No. I'll be pleased when we get Mr. Richard Blaney inside, though.

MRS. OXFORD (V.O.): Any idea where he is?

Oxford lowers his head and sniffs the bowl of soup.

OXFORD: No. Our only lead to him left her job this morning, and what's more, I don't know where she is either.

MRS. OXFORD (V.O.): You're certain, he's the one?

OXFORD:  He's the one, all right. There's not even the complication of another suspect. It has to be him.

He lifts his spoon out of the soup and brings out the gaping-mouthed head of a small fish. Carefully he places it on a side plate. He then tries again --gets some liquid, and drinks it cautiously. He gives it a highly qualified nod.

OXFORD: We have him identified as leaving the matrimonial agency at the time his ex was killed. We have the suit which he found necessary to send to the cleaners in a hurry. And we have the evidence of the face powder and the Salvation Army Hostel."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Humor can hide a lot of exposition.

Frenzy (1972)
by Anthony Shaffer
Based on the novel by Arthur La Bern

Monday, June 20, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) - Annoyed, Petty, REAL

[Quick Summary: Lonely, mismatched museum worker and parking lot attendant fall in love.]

This is a messy story about two misfits falling in love.

I like misfit characters. I love falling in love stories.

However, I admit I would've passed on this script because I couldn't see it as a film.*

Robert Towne put the dilemma this way:
The only way a screenplay can be evaluated, almost by definition, is not on the page, but by viewing the movie it caused to be made. It certainly can be read and even enjoyed, but you're stuck with the inescapable fact that it was written to be seen.
So what do you, as a writer, do?  Find a director and producer who can see it.

Luckily in this case, the writer was the director, John Cassavetes, who was generating some heat at this time in indie films.

I think Cassavetes was aiming to show two maddening, contradictory characters trying to work out a relationship.  It's annoying, petty, and REAL.

He succeeded, as I felt annoyed, petty, but satisfied that these two did belong together.

ex. "Seymour puts his arm around Minnie.

MINNIE: I can't do those dances.
SEYMOUR: What dances?
MINNIE: It's very important to me that when we go inside there I don't feel like a fool...because...
SEYMOUR: You're with me. You don't want to go dancing, we don't have to go dancing.
MINNIE: I want to go dancing.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I respect scripts that make me feel, regardless of the rest.

Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
by John Cassavetes

*I like more narrative structure. This is mostly a loose and free character study, which I could see as very attractive to actors.