Wednesday, December 8, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: James M. Cain Talks Theme vs. Plot

James M. Cain, tough guy novelist & screenwriter, was interviewed before his death in 1977. 

Many of his great works were made into movies, ex. "Double Indemnity" & "The Postman Always Rings Twice."  His novel, "Mildred Pierce", was recently remade for HBO with Kate Winslet.

I thought his words re: the difference between theme vs. plot were so helpful.  It is in the 3rd to last paragraph.

Here's an excerpt from the interview: 

[I've changed the paragraphing for your viewing pleasure.  All parentheticals are mine.]

Q: What are the events behind Mildred Pierce?

A: Jim McGuinness, my old producer friend at Columbia, once made a remark that led to "Mildred Pierce."  Out in Hollywood all they talk about is story - secretaries, everybody - story. 

Well, one day we were going to lunch, talking about stories, when he said, "There's one that's never failed yet, and that's the story of a woman who uses men to gain her ends."  I though, well, if it's never failed yet that sounds like a pretty good story to me.

Secretly, then, I began to try to adjust this formula.  For a while I had the woman as an airline stewardess.  Then she was a girl who won a beauty contest & came to Hollywood.  Neither of these came to life, so I thought, maybe it makes some difference what ends.

I suddenly thought it might help if her children were the ends she used men for, & naturally it would be better if it focused on one child.  But I had to have another child in there so it wouldn't seem so pat & easy.

Then  made her not a femme fatale at all, just a housewife, but she had that instinct to use men. 

Every time I had trouble with that book I thought, "My friend, you've forgotten what your story is about.  This is not the story of a woman who is devoted to her daughter & is nuts about her [plot]; it's a story about a woman who uses men to gain her ends [theme]."

Every time I'd remember that & reinstate that theme in the book, it would go.

No reviewer or anybody who read it ever detected that that's what the book is about. I didn't highlight it enough.  I don't take much pride in "Mildred Pierce," I have to confess to you.  It's not my kind of book. I made some egregious mistakes in it, especially right at the end, which is a very costly place to make mistakes.

From "Backstory:Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age," by Pat McGilligan (1986).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: 30 Scripts in 30 Days

Here's what I've learned in the past 30 days:

1 - As I moved up to #1, the scripts got better.

2 - Why did they get better?  The characters became fuller, clearer.

3 - How do I define "clearer"?

We're dropping in on a character on a particular day in their lives.  They have busy lives before & after this story. 

If a "character is just a function of the plot" as Tom Hooper says, they are cardboard cutouts who exist just for the script. 

4 - The plot follows the character, not the other way around.

ex. In Citizen Kane, we're following Kane.  It doesn't matter that the story isn't in chronological order.

ex. In the Godfather, we're following Michael as he struggles. It doesn't matter who he's fighting.  All we want to see is how he takes on the mantle of Don.

ex. In Casablanca, we're following Rick.  Is he really going to leave Casablanca?

5 - Most people mention the plot when talking about scripts #20-30.  Most people mention the characters when talking about #1-19.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is the best thing I've done for myself as a writer. 

It's easy to read scripts, but the real work is studying why they work.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: #1 WGA Script of All Time - Casablanca (1942)

[Quick Summary: Rick meets old flame Ilsa. Will he help her leave Casablanca?]

This is a fantastic script because it has great structure, & meaty characters.

But it's a very rare script because it has real humor. 

Not ha-ha humor, but subtextual humor borne out of the character & conflict.

ex. German Major Strasser wants a reason to make trouble for Rick.

STRASSER: What is your nationality?
RICK: I'm a drunkard.

Rick doesn't want to answer, but also doesn't want to offend.  So he uses humor to defuse & distract.  He's poking fun at Strasser, & sending a message that he won't be cornered.

Also, the structure lends itself beautifully for humor & conflict. 

ex. The script begins with refugees Jan & Annina who don't have money for visas. 

It then lays out in great detail that Rick thinks of himself as heartless.  He would never rig a casino game except to bribe the police.

So when Jan puts his last chips on Rick's roulette table, it's quite funny & poignant that Rick lets Jan win enough for visas.

It says a lot about how Rick is changing (without any on the nose dialogue), & shows how things are getting more desperate (raising stakes).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I simply loved the subtext & humor. 

The script was unapologetically smart, but never forgot it was telling a good story.

I find it amazing that they shot this with a half finished script, & were writing the night before each day's shoot.

Casablanca (1942)
by Julius & Phillip Epstein, Howard Koch

TODAY'S NUGGET: #2 WGA Script of All Time - The Godfather (1972)

[Quick Summary: When the Godfather is wounded, will the succession of power go easily. (Answer: No.)]

This story is about the making of a new Godfather.

The brilliance of the script comes from how the characters change, i.e., the characters' arc. 

ex. Michael begins as a far removed player. 

But through the death of Sonny, the wounding of the Godfather, the death of his first bride, Michael must grapple with conflicts he would rather not.

He doesn't want to get involved with the family business.  But he has the right temperament for it.

He falls in love & marries a beautiful Italian girl, who is killed.  He returns home & marries Kay...but does he love her?

When the Don dies, Michael must step up.  But he has doubts that he's ready.

It's not easy to make Michael's changes very human.  It would've been easier to write him as a caricature. 

But in this script, he really struggles with making the right decisions for himself & family.  He earns each milestone. 

I also liked that even the minor characters had arcs. 

ex. Kay's reaction to the same situations take her from naive to hardened.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Once again, character traits rule.

The whole purpose of the plot is to push the character one step closer to something he doesn't want to face.  Here, Michael has to take the reins of an empire he didn't want. 

The Godfather (1972)
by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

Monday, November 29, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #3 WGA Script of All Time - Chinatown (1974)

[Quick Summary: A p.i. is hired on an adultery case, but it turns out to be a setup, & he is plunged into a much deeper mystery revolving around LA, land, & water.]

Some people call this the perfectly structured script.

What I like most is that the problem escalates because of Gittes' character traits.

ex.  Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes.  Gittes takes pictures of Mr. Mulwray with another woman.  There's a big scandal...except that the "Mrs. Mulwray" who hired him wasn't the actual Mrs. Mulwray. 

Gittes has many reasons not to pursue this case, yet he can't put it down.

He's curious and takes pride in his reputation.  He's offended that he was made to look bad & wants to know who set him up.

This isn't business. It's personal.

His traits (curiosity & pride) are great motivators because things get much worse.  He could back off at any time, but it's that darn curiosity that drives him to risk more & more.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The plot is convincing because Gittes is convincing. 

It all stems from believing that Gittes needing to know...& the plot is believable too.

Chinatown (1974)
by Robert Towne

Sunday, November 28, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #4 WGA Script of All Time - Citizen Kane (1941)

[Quick Summary: After Charles Kane's death, newspaper reporters try to make sense out of his last words.]

I've never seen this movie or read this script before.

But now I can say I'm "one of those people" who understand Citizen Kane completely. 

I get why it's non-linear, & why Ebert has analyzed it at least 30 times (shot by shot), & what Rosebud means to Kane.

Actually, I'm lying.  (Except that I've read the script.)

The script is ambitious & the theme is enormous: It's about how Kane's hubris led to forcing everyone to bend to his will.  How do you do that visually?

It also attempts things that cause other scripts to fail, ex. The narrative jumps around in time. Kane is his own antagonist.  There are a lot of quick montages.

But it works here, but why?

I think it boils down to the #1 commonality in the top 5 scripts: The character is well-rounded & three dimensional.

When the narrative jumps around in time, it's ok because it deliberately focuses us on one of Kane's characteristics.  (In other words, we're driven by the character, not the plot.)

When Kane is his own antagonist, it's ok because the only person who could take Kane down is Kane himself.  (He gets in his own way all the time, not just for this film.)

When there are quick montages of the Enquirer building circulation, it isn't a cheat.  It's a visual of Kane's success, as well as the swelling of his head, which is vital to the story.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script is over the top...yet believable. 

That's tough. Really tough.

Citizen Kane (1941)
by Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles

Saturday, November 27, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #5 WGA Script of All Time - All About Eve (1950)

[Quick Summary: Eve, an ambitious young actress, insinuates herself into an older stage actress' (Margo's) circle in order to become a star.]

This script was nominated for 14 Oscars, the most ever (until "Titanic" tied it in 1997).  It held the record for 47 YEARS!

It was also nominated against "Sunset Boulevard", which also was about an aging actress.

Do I agree that the writing in "All About Eve" should've edged out "Sunset Boulevard"?

Yes, but only by millimeters.

Why? I think it's because Eve's "selfless, good intentioned" actions are actually self-serving.

Eve's actions are beyond reproach...but her motives are cloaked.  This results in great subtext as Margo comes to realize Eve's true motives.

ex.  Around p. 37, Margo gets an unexpected phone call from the operator. Eve had pre-arranged with the operator that Margo should call Bill to wish him a happy birthday.

Margo feels terribly guilty because she forgot Bill's birthday completely, & that Eve has been planning a 'surprise' party with Bill, unbeknownst to Margo.

On the surface, Eve seems like such a thoughtful person. But her actions cause Margo's female intuition to ring off the hook. 

On the surface, everyone marvels at efficient, kind Eve.  But Margo knows at some level that Eve covets Bill.  

Eve is so good at looking innocent that people jump to her defense. This causes Margo to doubt herself because Eve seems to want nothing but Margo's happiness.

But that's the genius of Eve.  She is a well thought out character who persuades others to champion her cause...all the while, Eve is undermining Margo.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm getting into rarified air with the top 5 scripts.

Margo & Eve are three dimensional characters & this script is a slice of their lives.  The plot falls naturally from the character & her flaws, i.e., they are not constructed just for this plot.

[I believe this is what Tom Hooper (see previous post) means when he says characters should not be a function of plot.]

All About Eve (1950)
by Joseph Mankiewicz

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Tom Hooper on Character

"I get very few original screenplays where the character writing is anywhere near as good as when the characters are drawn from history....

I'm tired of scripts where the character is just a function of the plot, but I am consistently drawn to iconic figures who are highly flawed. It isn't difficult to humanize them because they have such an active struggle."

- Tom Hooper, director of "The King's Speech". USA Today, 11/26/10.

Friday, November 26, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #6 WGA Script of All Time - Annie Hall (1977)

[Quick Summary: Neurotic guy & ditzy girl break up. Guy remembers the relationship.]

As I get closer & closer to the #1 script, the characters become more & more well rounded. 

I can honestly say I know Annie Hall after reading about her.  I know how she reacts to stress, how ambitious she is, what she's afraid of, what she's look for in a partner.

How did the writers get me so close to Annie?  It was the small moments when she had to make decisions, i.e., her character arc of growth

ex.  Annie's afraid of being seen as dumb.  Alvy, the antagonist, likes being the know it all & lording it over Annie (though he would disclaim it if you pinned him about it). 

Growth Step 1 - Alvy encourages Annie to take adult education classes, which she balks at, at first. 

Growth Step 2 - But then she starts to enjoy learning - - & suddenly Alvy is threatened & tells her he thinks adult ed is "such junk". 

Growth Step 3 - She decides to be brave & breaks up with him.

Step Backwards - She makes a bad decision (but understandable) & gets back together again with Alvy later.

This is reality.  By Growth Step 3, Annie is stronger than at Step 1, but she is still emotionally attached. 

She takes a step backward & decides to go with what is fun & safe...but the next time an opportunity is presented, she is positioned to risk it, i.e., Growth Step 4 - Tony, the famous record personality, offers her a chance to work together.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The growth arc is seen by a few steps forward, one step back

Annie Hall (1977)
by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #7 WGA Script of All Time - Sunset Boulevard (1950)

[Quick Summary: Joe, a poor screenwriter, becomes a companion/writer for Norma Desmond, an aging star who rapidly becomes more & more unhinged.]

Billy Wilder has 4 of the top 30 scripts ("Double Indemnity", "The Apartment", "Some Like It Hot", & "Sunset Boulevard").

I think Sunset Boulevard takes the cake.

Sure, a guy is also lured into a female's web in Double Indemnity.  But he wasn't facing Norma Desmond, the eight foot black widow spider.

Norma really makes the script.  She's a worthy antagonist because she never lets up. 

ex. Norma traps Joe in a gilded cage & keeps him dependent on her.  When he balks, she punishes him with a suicide attempt.  What a ballsy move.  How can he leave now?

ex. Norma calls Betty to plant doubts about Joe.  She forces Joe to come clean to Betty that he's living off of Norma. 

Of course, this is the last straw.  Norma has pushed Joe to face that he is better off broke in Ohio than in this cage. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Norma is no wimp & will not be ignored.  A good antagonist will do that to bring the protagonist up higher. 

I actually admired Joe a lot more by the end because he refused to bow to Norma.  He earned his arc. 

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, & D.M. Marshman, Jr.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

TODAY’s 2nd NUGGET: #8 WGA Script of All Time – Network (1976)

[Quick Summary: Network exploits a mad, ranting news anchor for ratings.]

"Network" isn’t for sissies.

It's refreshing because it doesn't shy away from complicated characters with real moral issues. 

In fact, the script lets ALL the dirty laundry hang out so that we can talk about it.

ex. Howard was the news anchor, but he's fired.  However his last on-air rant sky rocketed the rating, so they hire him back. 

Diana the programmer exploits Howard's deteriorating mental health.   She never asks if it's right or wrong because it's the ratings that count, not people.  Thus, we get to explore how callous society has become.

ex. Max, fired president of the news division, tells his wife Louise that he's fallen for Diana, but doesn't know why.  Louise doesn't slink away.

Instead, she pins his ears back with a blistering speech:

"...This is your great winter romance, isn't it? Your last roar of passion before you sink into your emeritus years.  Is that what's left for me? Is that my share? She gets the great winter passion and I get the dotage?" 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Too many scripts try to soften the blow for a character's choices.  This script didn't. 

ex. Max jumped for a mirage & he fell.  Hard.

There were no soft landings or cute escapes.

I liked that he truly suffered the consequences of his decisions because that's what makes them REAL, three dimensional characters.

Network (1976)
By Paddy Chayefsky

TODAY'S NUGGET: It's All About the Script for Harvey

When I read the "King's Speech" & "My Week With Marilyn" last year, I knew the old Harvey Weinstein had got his touch back.

These were above excellent at the script stage, & Weinstein was looking for funding. Both boded well.

Harvey is finally getting back to his roots.

Here's what he had to say in today's L.A. Times:

"Speaking from London, where his company is producing "My Week With Marilyn," about a little-known relationship between a young man and Marilyn Monroe, Weinstein avowed he's returned to what he knows best. "I didn't read 'Juno' or 'Slumdog Millionaire' and I was only coming to the festivals to make my presence known," he said, referring to the two independent hits snatched by rival Fox Searchlight. "Now, I realize the strongest thing I can do for my company is read 15 scripts a week.""

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Harvey is reading FIFTEEN scripts a week.

How many are you reading?

STORY OF THE DAY: What Goldman Said To Sorkin

In Aaron Sorkin's own words:

"You're a very talented writer, but I don't think there's any way I can hire you."

Those words would have been disappointing coming from anyone.  Coming from William Goldman, they were heart stopping.  Castle Rock was developing an idea for a film called Malice and Goldman had been asked by the company to identify a young, new (read inexpensive) writer whom he could tutor on the screenplay. 

I was twenty-seven and I'd never written a screenplay before, in fact I'd never read a screenplay before, but my first stageplay, A Few Good Men, was about to go into rehearsal for Broadway, and the script fell into the hands of a Castle Rock executive who passed it on to Goldman.

And the phone rang. My agent.

"Would you be interested in having lunch tomorrow afternoon with William Goldman to discuss a possible movie project?"

I told him that since Goldman was a remarkable novelist and screenwriter, two-time Academy Award winner, and my personal hero, that, yeah, I could probably squeeze him in.

I showed up at the designated restaurant on the upper East side.  Goldman stood, extended his hand, and said it.

"You're a very talented writer, but I don't think there's any way I can hire you."  Didn't look like I'd be getting lunch that day.

"I loved reading your play, but you've never written a screenplay, not even a lousy television pilot, and I don't think you have the experience necessary for us to be able to work on this." No lunch. No nothin'.

I told him that while I couldn't convince him that I had more experience than I did, perhaps I could convince him that experience wasn't crucial.  I sat down.  (The waiter eventually came and there was food.)  We talked about the Mets and we talked about our mutual back problems, but mostly we talked about writing.  Two hours later, my hero extended his hand again and said, "I tell you what: We've got a deal."

In the eight years and three films that followed, William Goldman taught me most of what I know about screenwriting, and a small fraction of what he knows. I'm very grateful.

Thanks for lunch, Bill. Really.

From the book: "Screenwriters: America's Storytellers in Portrait", by Helena Lumme & Mika Manninen, 1999, p. 99.

Monday, November 22, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #9 WGA Script of All Time - Some Like It Hot (1959)

[Quick Summary: Two musicians witness a murder & hide out as part of an all girl orchestra band.]

I think this is on the list because of the tennis match dialogue.

ex. Around p. 24, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) confides in her friend Josephine/Joe that she's had it with men, & that she has got a soft spot for sax players with glasses.

Joe desperately wants to confess, "I can be that man!" but doesn't dare.  Sugar has only opened the floodgates because she thinks it's her girlfriend Josephine.  If Sugar knew it was Joe, she'd hate him.

So he just rapidly responds with one word answers to keep her talking. 

Yet every double entendre is a knife in his heart. The audience it transfixed on Joe.  How much longer will he have to undergo this internal agony? 

We're invested in what he's experiencing rather than trying to jump ahead.

Not too many films can keep an audience pinned in the moment like that.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Great dialogue emphasizes the importance of Now.

Some Like It Hot (1959)
by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond

Sunday, November 21, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #10 WGA Script of All Time - Godfather Part 2 (1974)

[Quick Summary: With parallels to father Vito's early life, his son Michael must get rid of a traitor in the family.]

I've never seen the Godfather, so I entered in with an unbiased mind.

All I can say is wow.  Wow freakin' wow.

The genius of the film is its additional emotional depth through...uh....flashbacks.

Yes, I said flashbacks. 

ex. Michael argues with Pentangeli, the head of the NYC branch. Pentangeli storms out. Michael remembers the past.

And the script segues to how Vito first became a crime boss.  Vito tries to make an honest living, but Fanucci extorts everyone. Vito eventually kills Fanucci, & returns home to his son: "Papa loves you very much."

And the script segues to Michael telling his son the same.

Note the parallels:

- Michael won't be derailed. Vito eliminates the opponent.
- Michael prizes loyalty above all. Vito doesn't rat out his friends to Fanucci.
- Michael loves his son. Vito loves his son.

The flashback doesn't just add information (which is why I usually hate flashbacks). 

Here, it shows that the sins of the father are revisited by the son. We see Vito's problems  in hindsight, but also are being setup for what Michael will face.

Suddenly Michael's actions have more emotional weight.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The transitions to flashbacks were important.  There were no announcements, "Now we are going to flashback" that is so jarring to the reader.

Why was it seamless? I trusted the writer that if there was a change in time in the slugline, ex. "INT. NEW YORK THEATER - 1915 - NIGHT" there was a REASON for the flashback.

Godfather Part 2 (1974)
by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

Saturday, November 20, 2010

TODAY’S NUGGET: #11 WGA Script of All Time – Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969)

[Quick Summary: Butch & Sundance are old Western train robbers who flee to Bolivia.  FYI: They get in trouble there too.]

Act 2 is always deadly for me, particularly between the midpoint & Act 3.

How do you keep cranking up the stakes?

So I took a closer look at what William Goldman did in this classic.

At the midpoint, Butch, Sundance, & Etta have landed in Bolivia.  This is the "promised land", but it's turning out badly (which is great for the script).

First, they don't speak Spanish & so their 1st bank robbery goes south (obstacle).  They eventually get the hang of it & become known as the Bandidos Yanqui.

But then they spot the ruthless Man with the Straw Hat, who has tracked them down.  They escaped him in the US, & know he'll never quit (higher stakes).

Butch has a great idea - they'll go straight & become payroll guards! 

Unfortunately, six bandits try to steal the money from them (obstacle). Butch & Sundance kill them all (higher stakes). 

They're shocked by what they've done, but this is what they're good at.

Etta decides to go back home.  While waiting for her train, the three see an inaccurate film reel about how they "died." 

Butch & Sundance are offended by the portrayal, & must decide whether they want to go down that way (crisis & Act 3).

So from the midpoint to Act 3, every moment is about ratcheting it up to the moment the protagonists face their fear, i.e., getting caught. 

Here's the sequence:

- They can't go back to the US (midpoint) 
- They move forward in Bolivia, but still try to avoid the fear (rest of Act 2)
- They accept this is the moment of battle (ex. reacting to the film)
- They must decide "yes, I will fight" or "no, I won't" (crisis)
- Now we're set up the big shootout in Act 3 (the consequences of that crisis decision)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Avoiding the fear has to have worse consequences in Act 2B than Act 2A (before the midpoint). 

Here, Butch & Sundance are in Bolivia. They have a language barrier, no amnesty, & an antagonist who has pursued them over two countries.  It's much worse than they thought.

Butch & the Sundance Kid (1969)
by William Goldman

Friday, November 19, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #12 WGA Script of All Time - Dr. Strangelove (1964)

[Quick Summary: A crazy general starts a unilateral war against the Russians. I think.]

It's my fault.

I don't get this script.

I know it's a broad comedy about the idiocy of nuclear war & the players. I even chuckled at the name "Colonel 'Bat' Guano."

But I felt as if I was trying to interpret a foreign language & couldn't translate.

Maybe because this script relies very heavily on language over visuals?  Can someone help me?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  This must be what it feels like when someone on the other side of the world watches a U.S. comedy & just doesn't get it. Because I didn't.

Dr. Strangelove (1964)
by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George

Thursday, November 18, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #13 WGA Script of All Time - The Graduate (1967)

[Quick Summary: Ben, a recent college grad, is seduced into an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner.  Then Ben falls for Elaine Robinson, the daughter, & all hell breaks loose.]

This is a sublime read.  SUBLIME, do you hear me? SUBLIME.

It's reads fast.  It clutches your gut. 

The antagonist is really threatening.  The protagonist is put through the wringer.

But the #1 thing worth stealing is its clarity.

CLAR-I-TY = You know exactly what the writer means but it hasn't lost momentum.

New writers often mistake "explicitly clear" for "clarity."  They are not the same.

Example of clarity:

ex. Ben arrives at the Robinson house to find Elaine. He moves through various rooms of the house, sharply interrogates Mrs. Robinson, then dashes for his car.  There are 11 locations in 2 pages, yet I know exactly where he is & why. 

Example of what a new writer would do:

ex. Ben arrives at the Robinson house. Anguished, he climbs the fence.  [There's no reason to describe how he climbed the fence.]

Creak goes the back door. [I do not need sound effects here. He's lost Elaine & is in a rush.  Don't slow me down.] 

He tiptoes through the kitchen. [Tiptoe here is useless.  He's in a RUSH, right?]

He confronts Mrs. Robinson & sweats as she calls the police.  [Dialogue should carry the tension here.  You heard me right.  The climax is the one place great dialogue will make the difference.]

He leaves. [Uh, where is he going?]

Ok, this is a bit of exaggeration, but the point is that new writers often accentuate the wrong thing.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you read the Graduate, you'll see how to keep it crisp, clear & moving (clarity) WITHOUT bogging it down.

The Graduate (1967)
by Buck Henry

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #14 WGA Script of All Time - Lawrence of Arabia (1960)

[Quick Summary: Lawrence, a young British intelligence officer, is sent to "assess the situation" of Bedouin Arabs in their fight against the Turks in WWI (1916). 

I did not like this script.

There.  I said it.

This is an epic 4 hour film, so I prepared myself for a script with a slower pace...but I was wrong.  I could only read 136 pgs. (out of a whopping 268 pgs.)

WHAT I LIKED: Lawrence has interesting traits.  He's got moxie.

ex. Lawrence, & his commanding officer Brighton meet Feisel, a local desert leader.  Brighton wants Feisel to move his people south to safer grounds.

Brighton uses British reasoning, which doesn't impress Feisel.  It's a stalemate...

...until Lawrence agrees with Feisel. 

Brighton is aghast. Who does he think he is?

But Lawrence cleverly points out things that are to Feisel's advantage by cooperating with the English.  Lawrence has won Feisel's confidence as well as broken the stalemate.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: I had no idea what Lawrence had at stake personally.  It was hard for me to connect.

I sympathized. I admired. But never thought, "That's me" or "That's someone I know."

Lawrence of Arabia (1960)
by Robert Bolt

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #15 WGA Script of All Time - The Apartment (1960)

[Quick Summary: A doormat of an insurance salesman allows his superiors to use his apartment as a by-the-hour love nest. But when he finally meets a special girl, he stands up for himself.]

I thought this was a sad but heartfelt comedy.

The one scene that broke my heart was so well written with subtext & symbols.

Here's the setup: Bud like Fran. Fran likes the married boss, Mr. Sheldrake. Mr. Sheldrake is using Bud's apartment to woo Fran (Bud doesn't know it).

Bud finds a woman's compact w/ a broken mirror in his apartment. He returns it to Sheldrake.

Here's the scene: At the firm's Christmas party, Fran has just found out she's just one of Sheldrake's string of women. But she can't tell anyone.

Bud ushers her into his office. He's in high spirits, since he's been promoted.

He tries to impress Fran & tells her that he's close to Sheldrake. He shows her a Christmas card from the entire Sheldrake family. She reacts less than enthused.

He offers to put in a good word for her. She hesitates.

He changes the subject to his new hat & asks her opinion. She hands him her compact...with the broken mirror.

There are two things happening:

1 - Bud KNOWS she's the girl Sheldrake's been cheating with. At BUD'S apartment. What a double gut punch.

2 - Fran thinks no one knows her own misery. But Bud suddenly does.

There's little need for dialogue because the symbols carry the subtext.

ex. Bud sees the mirror & he knows Fran knows Sheldrake. All his hot air about being cozy with Sheldrake is now a joke.

ex. Fran sees the Sheldrake family Christmas card & it pours buckets of salt in her wound. He'll never leave his family for her.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The economy of this double turning point was genius. All show, no tell.

The Apartment (1960)
by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond

Monday, November 15, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #16 WGA Script of All Time - Pulp Fiction (1994)

[Quick Summary: Two mob guys get in trouble. It's complicated.]

Although I could barely follow the four twisting plots, I could follow the dialogue. 

It was entertaining, and stems from character traits. 

ex. When Jules says "I'm trying real hard to be a shepherd" at the end, we know he's left behind some cynicism, but not all the way.

I think film critic Roger Ebert said it best:

"[I]t isn't the structure that makes "Pulp Fiction'' a great film. Its greatness comes from its marriage of vividly original characters with a series of vivid and half-fanciful events and from the dialogue. The dialogue is the foundation of everything else. 

Watching many movies, I realize that all of the dialogue is entirely devoted to explaining or furthering the plot, and no joy is taken in the style of language and idiom for its own sake. There is not a single line in "Pearl Harbor'' you would want to quote with anything but derision."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Great dialogue pushes the story forward to the next scene. On-the-nose dialogue just sits there like a lead bucket.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
by Quentin Tarantino & Roger Avary

Sunday, November 14, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #17 WGA Script of All Time - Tootsie (1982)

[Quick Summary: Michael Dorsey is an actor who can't get a job as a man.  He dresses as "Dorothy", becomes a tv soap sensation, falls in love with Julie, a co-worker.]

To me, this script stood out because it does "hidden in plain sight" extremely well.

The tension isn't so much about the "hidden" as what is happening "in plain sight." 

There's complex subtext as two people often experience the same situation in two different conflicting ways. 

ex.  Julie bares her soul to Dorothy, her friend.  Michael/Dorothy is frustrated because he sees her as a love interest. Although they are sharing the same intimate moment, they aren't connecting as Julie & Michael. 

Scenes like this ratchet up the tension & push Michael toward the climax where he must make a decision: keep the job or confess to the girl.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This tension is sophisticated. 

It stems from Michael getting what he wants (fame), but not not getting what he really wants (Julie).  His arc really is the struggle to choose between the two.

Tootsie (1982)
by Larry Gelbart

Saturday, November 13, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #18 WGA Script of All Time - On the Waterfront (1954)

[Quick Summary: Under union pressure, Terry participates in the demise of a fellow longshoreman, Joey, who ratted to the Crime Commission.  Terry falls for Joey's sister, which gives him the courage to stand up to the union bosses.]

This is the Rocky movie before Rocky was Rocky.

Let's focus on Act 2 (in part because I'm struggling with my own Act 2).

In Act 1, Terry feels guilty for luring Joey out into the open so the other longshoremen could take him out. 

But why should he care?  It's no skin off his nose if Joey gets it for squealing.

Then in Act 2A, he encounters two things that makes his conscience grow:

a) He's cut to the quick by Father Barry's words that none of them are safe from the union bosses, even if they think they're protected; &

b) He falls hard for Joey's sister, Edie, who stirs him to be a better man.

At the midpoint, Terry is shaken because the scales have fallen off his eyes. Will he tell the Crime Commission about the waterfront corruption?

In Act 2B, it gets much worse. 

Another snitch is killed.  Terry confesses to Father Barry, who refuses to make the choice for him.  Terry tells Edie, who isn't any easier on him.

Then the last straw: Charley, his brother & protector, is sent to lure Terry out into the open...& Charley dies.

I like how 2A escalates with character complications. Terry can't avoid Father Barry's truth, nor his desire to protect Edie. He reaches the Point of No Return (midpoint) & can't go back to who he was.

In fact, 2B tests this new Terry.  He pushed & pushed & pushed & then, WHAM! He's ready to face down the bullies in Act 3.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Act 2 forces Terry to the limits.  He has to give up his flaw (selfishness) to survive. 

I learned that Act 2 should give my character no room to go anywhere except forward.

On the Waterfront (1954)
by Bud Schulberg

Friday, November 12, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #19 WGA Script of All Time - To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

[Quick Summary: Scout, a 6 y.o. tomboy, observes her attorney father Atticus defend a black man in a 1932 racially charged Alabama town.]

Horton Foote wrote an incredibly fast read (it's 136 pgs.!)

I liked that it's told from a child's point of view because the situation is filtered much differently than an adult. 

These children are very observant, & so much of the real meaning comes out in subtext.

ex. Who knifed bad Mr. Ewell?  Jem? Boo Radley?  Does it matter?  Atticus tells Scout that Ewell fell on his knife & asks if she understands.  She tells him yes & repeats the story he told earlier about shooting a mockingbird.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: As the children struggle to learn about very serious subjects, the audience also grapples with them.

I liked that there was a message wrapped in a story (not a story wrapped in a message).

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
by Horton Foote

Thursday, November 11, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #20 WGA Script of All Time - It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

[Quick Summary: Upstanding George Bailey considers suicide when $8k goes missing from his business' coffers.  Clarence the angel is sent to intervene.]

I'd like to have Clarence's job.

He gets to enter early, & then doesn't have to reappear until approx. p. 129 (of 167 pgs.)

But seriously, why do I forgive Clarence for his long absence in this script? 

Answer: Because there's a REASON for the late re-introduction.

All the scenes between p. 6-129 are setups that are paid of quickly after p. 129. 

ex. Why do we need to see George save Mr. Gower the pharmacist (setup; p. 16)? Because George needs to see Mr. Gower the panhandler in the "no George" world (payoff; p. 142).

ex. Why do we need to see brother Harry become a war hero (setup; p. 100)?  So that George would react violently to Harry's death in the "no George" world (payoff; p. 153).

Clarence's return demarcates the third act.  He is also the catalyst that accelerates George to the climax. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  If Clarence were present throughout, the audience would expect a resolution far too soon.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, & Frank Capra

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TODAY’S 2nd NUGGET: #21 WGA Script of All Time – North by Northwest (1959)

[Quick Summary: Roger Thornhill is an advertising man who is mistaken for the notorious George Kaplan.  As Roger chases down the truth, he finds that Kaplan never existed.]

This script had fantastic pacing for the first 80-90 pages. 

(I don't know why, but it seemed to slow down when until Thornhill goes to Eve's train compartment.)

The script m-o-v-e-s because:

1) Thornhill's life is absolutely disrupted by this Kaplan guy (good conflict)

2) Thornhill hates being blamed for Kaplan's mistakes & wants his life back (good motive)

3) Both protagonist & antagonist think they're right. And they are. But they think the other side is wrong. But they're not.  Who will win?  (good raising of stakes)

The audience can't wait for the shoes to start falling.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I think Acts 1 & 2 flew because as puzzle pieces were added, other pieces were subtracted.

This isn't one of my favorite scripts.  I guess once I knew Thornhill wasn't really in trouble, I lost some momentum.

North by Northwest (1959)
by Ernest Lehman


I love this quote from Tom Hooper, the British director of "King's Speech", "Elizabeth I", & "John Adams":

"I've discovered that the film culture in Los Angeles is very indirect -- it's almost Japanese in that way," he said. "No one says what they actually mean. It must be why you need an agent, because you need someone to interpret the indirectness for you. It's really quite odd. You'll hear that the person from the studio doesn't want to meet with you because they're afraid that they'll have to say no to you and you'll be upset. So rather than risk saying no, they would rather not see you at all."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: He's absolutely right. 

There are very few people who will give you an honest answer. If you find them, keep them!

For a bigger list of the people you need on your team, read Sir Michael Caine's new book, "The Elephant to Hollywood."  He gives an honest summary of what each person should do for you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Truncated Action Descriptions

A fellow writer sent me this blog article, "Cliches to Avoid Like the Plague" by Dan Reilly, a Hollywood story analyst, & asked me what I thought. 

It's excellent.

I'd never really realized that "Just looks" & "They laugh" are unnecessary stage (as in theater) directions.

He also writes about my biggest pet peeve: the truncated action descriptions.

ex. “Two legs. Running fast. Night sky. No stars. The legs. Run faster. A bomb. No time. EXPLOSION.”

The idea is to keep the sentences short b/c readers have no attention spans.  That is good.

However, a whole script of truncations will cause me to see red.  (And yes, I have.) I'll probably go Hulk on you.


These aren't sentences.  They're fragments.  For NO REASON.  That's NOT COOL.

My eyes get tired from stop-start-stop-start.  I'm not paying attention to your story.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Unless you've got a @#$()*% good reason, don't use truncated action descriptions.

What are @#$()% good reasons? 

To point out the murder weapon: "He shot her with an Uzi.  Her Uzi."
To slow the reader on purpose: "Scarlett. In red. Leaping from the cliff. THE END."

TODAY'S NUGGET: #22 WGA Script of All Time - Shawshank Redemption (1994)

[Quick Summary: Andy, a former banker, is incarcerated for killing his wife & her lover.  During his time in prison, he transforms his fellow prisoners... & then escapes.]

This is another dark script I didn't want to read. 

The bleakness of the movie still haunts me, and even though I saw it over 15 years ago.

But as I read the script, I realized that it was only Andy's hope & motive that made it palatable. 

Writer Frank Darabont is so skillful at laying out the character's wants/desires, then taking it away.

The character's motive is crystal clear, b/c we SEE why the character is acting the way he does.

ex. Young Tommy comes to prison.  Andy helps him get his GED & is so proud. (Hope)

Tommy tells Andy that he heard another con brag about killing Andy's wife & her lover.  Andy is innocent! (Hope.  Andy wants to be free.)

Andy tells the Warden, who selfishly wants to keep his free accountant.  The Warden has Tommy killed.  (Fear. Andy has lost someone he cares about again.)

Andy refuses to doctor the Warden's books any more.  The Warden threatens to everything Andy holds dear: his precious library, protection from physical assaults, etc. (Fear. Andy has nothing to lose now.)

Andy snaps...and we all know why now.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script is a great example of showing motive that both explains & propels us into the next act.

Andy's reaction shots (not necessarily his dialogue) were key.

Shawshank Redemption (1994)
by Frank Darabont

Monday, November 8, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #23 WGA Script of All Time - Gone With the Wind (1939)

[Quick Summary: Civil War Southern belle is in an uphill struggle for the wrong man, & to save her plantation home, Tara.]

I confess that I wasn't able to finish this 256 page tome in one day.

But the one thing I did notice was that Rhett Butler has got it in spades:

- He has a great introduction.  Scarlett sees someone staring at her & she asks a friend, "Who's THAT nasty dark one?"  The audience has not seen Rhett yet, but we're intrigued. 

- There's very little physical description of Rhett, except we get a flavor for him just by how he stands: "[He] lounges at the foot of the stairs, a mint julep glass in his hand, smiling up at them."  His physicality is less important than his attitude.

- He consistently has the best lines: "No...I don't think I will kiss you.  Although you need kissing - badly."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Rhett Butler is written as a strong man who's not afraid to tell a woman he loves her.  I don't see him as weak for that admission, but stronger. 

I'm glad to see this tough-tender balance b/c characters often lean too much one way or the other.

Gone With the Wind (1939)
by Sidney Howard

Sunday, November 7, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #24 WGA Script of All Time - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

[Quick Summary: After a nasty breakup with Clementine, Joel undergoes a procedure to erase her from his memory.  But soon he becomes desperate to keep those memories.]

Charlie Kaufman certainly is not afraid of multiple jumps in time & location.  In lesser hands, the reader would get lost. 

Kaufman, however, uses simple sentences to:
- paint the picture
- transition to the jump
- keep the momentum going.

(Note that simple does not mean boring or plodding. ex. "Sally sat down. She sipped coffee. She cried."  I beg of you - no more.)

Kaufman doesn't break up the flow with a slugline "INT. WE ARE GOING INTO A MEMORY NOW."   Instead, he uses the narrative wisely. 

ex.  Joel is in the lab hooked up to a machine.  The scene transitions from the lab into Joel's memory.  Here are three consecutive sentences:

1) "The room, Stan, & Mierzwiak are now vague and wispy." Clearly we're fading from the present moment.

2) "Joel watches Stan. Stan is not speaking, yet his voice continues."  Again, it's clear lips aren't moving, and Joel is sinking into the memory.

3) "Joel looks up. Stan's voice seems to be coming from above."  It's very clear that we're transitioning to a jump in time or location.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The audience can follow jumps in time & location, but only if the writer is CLEAR what is happening.

The best way is simple sentences, & proper preparation in the narrative for the jumps. 

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
by Charlie Kaufman

Saturday, November 6, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #25 WGA Script of All Time - Wizard of Oz (1939)

[Quick Summary: A tornado sends Dorothy to Oz, where she befriends the Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion. She must bring the Wicked Witch of the West's broomstick to the Great Oz in order to get home.]

Usually I see:
1) subplots that are disconnected from the main plot.
2) subplots w/ minor characters that try to stand out too much, i.e., They think this is their movie.

Wizard of Oz stands out b/c all the subplots support the main character's goal, i.e., Dorothy's journey home.

This is especially clear in Act 3 when Dorothy isn't around:

ex. The Scarecrow uses his brain to get into the castle to rescue Dorothy.

ex. The Tin Man cares so much that he breaks down her jail door.

ex. The Lion faces his fear and uses courage to rally the troops when he'd rather back down.

Why does this work?

Because the supporting cast are all invested in the main character.

Because they know this is Dorothy's movie, thus they are working toward Dorothy's goals. Yes, they get their goals met too, but only b/c they're in service to the main character's goals.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Subplots should echo the theme back to the main character.

Here's Dorothy realizes "there's no place like home" b/c each of the subplots remind her how much she took the Kansas farmhands for granted.

Wizard of Oz (1939)
by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf

Friday, November 5, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #26 WGA Script of All Time - Double Indemnity (1944)

[Quick Summary: A wicked married woman cleverly persuades an insurance man to kill her husband on a train so she gets extra insurance money (double indemnity clause). The insurance man gets a conscience too late & he's her pawn.]

Double Indemnity is a serious humdinger of a script.

I started to write about suspense, but found myself wondering about character, in particular, Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson's brass knuckles.

She is written as a smart, careful, lady-like antagonist. But she is really an evil seductress who hit men hard when they're down, & fillets them wide open.

Why do they always wake up too late?

I think it's because her character traits are: manipulator, strategist, & siren.

ex. Manipulator - The protagonist Neff is appalled at her "innocent" question about how to get her husband a policy w/o him knowing about it. She visits him the next day & plays up the frightened woman who only feels safe with him. He steps up to "protect" her.

ex. Strategist - She verbally says, "I don't want to kill him"...but all her innuendo encourages Neff to think she's denying how she really feels. She makes him think it's all his brilliant plan.

ex. Siren - She is underplayed, & more reactive than active...or so we're lead to believe. She is always two steps ahead, & thus doubly dangerous. The audience focuses on Neff, who is an active protagonist, but they should really be paying attention to her.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Phyllis' brass knuckles work b/c she never breaks character.

She flutters about with a sympathetic air that brings out Neff's protective side...& causes him to make some awful decisions (but help her).

Double Indemnity (1944)
by Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler

*For more, check out "Conversations with Wilder", by Cameron Crowe. It's an invaluable look at Wilder's opinions on what makes writing great, what works, & what does not.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: #28 WGA Script of All Time - Shakespeare in Love (1998)

[Quick Summary: Will Shakespeare needs a muse. He finds it in Viola, but she is to marry another.  Through their love affair, Shakespeare is able to write again.]

This script should be wrapped in brown paper w/ a stern warning that says "Not For Amateurs."

It is a historical (usually an automatic "no").

It is an ensemble with umpteen characters, including historical characters (tough to give everyone screen time).

It's dense. Very dense. (not just b/c it's 129 pages; It is black print dense w/exposition, a lot of detail.)

It's got multiple plot lines (not for the faint of heart).

The action parallels Shakespeare's play (are you really going to go there? REALLY?)

For those reasons, it could've gone very wrong...but the writer turned out a technically difficult, well structured script.  It deserved all the accolades for completing such an extraordinary feat. 

All that being said, I liked the script but didn't love it.  I empathized with Will, but didn't ache for him.

(It's probably just a matter of taste.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When attempting to reinvent history, it's best to keep the main story strong & simple.  Here, a man finds his muse, & love, thus, he's able to truly write from the heart again.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)
by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: #29 WGA Script of All Time - Sullivan's Travels (1941)

[Quick Summary: John Sullivan, a privileged, successful comedy director, wants to make depressing films for the poor.  Despite the studio's protests, he becomes a hobo to try to experience being poor. 

Sullivan always gets rescued from true poverty... until an old bum ambushes him far from home.  Sullivan goes to jail, & is truly depressed, & poor for the first time.  Then he sees a comedy film & nothing is the same.]

I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know a thing about this Preston Sturges film until today. 

Zilch. Zero. Nada.

I cracked it open & was glad that it was a comedy right off the bat ...then slowly I noticed there was a message.

But it wasn't preachy and it wasn't a "message film."

I scratched my head. How the heck did Sturges sneak that in?

This is a satire, which is defined as using wit to ridicule a political, societal, or moral vice or folly in order to cause change.

Apparently Sturges was fed up with comedies of his day giving up fun for "messages."  So he crafted a script that mocks seriousness. 

ex.  Sullivan, who has never wanted for anything, WANTS TO BE POOR, but there are obstacles to being poor (the girl keeps rescuing him). Now how ridiculous is that? 

For 90% of the script, Sullivan really, really tries hard to be poor.  He's very serious about being seriously poor...then he's in jail & the horrors of being poor are real.

He's alone.  He's scared & doing hard labor.  He's got nothing.

Then the punch-in-the-gut moment:  The warden takes the prisoners to see a comedy.  Sullivan is morose & doesn't want to laugh.  But the film makes the audience laugh...

And he can't help but laugh too.

SHAZAM!  He gets that he was wrong.   

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sturges' genius is that he makes the journey so enjoyable that you didn't realize you were learning.

Sullivan's Travels (1941)
by Preston Sturges

TODAY'S NUGGET: #30 WGA Script of All Time - Unforgiven (1992)

[Quick Summary: Delilah is a prostitute whose face is butchered by bad Mike in 1880s Old West.  Her prostitute friends offer $1k to whomever kills Mike. 

The Kid finds three fingered, bad ass assassin Bill Munny & asks him to partner up for the job. Problem is, Munny found a good woman (who died), & has gone straight, but needs the money to raise his kids.]

I did not want to read Unforgiven.

It's raw & often dark, but I was glad I did. 

This is a rare script b/c: 1) the stakes never stop rising, & 2) it's still a very lean script. 

A newbie writer will try to "increase the stakes" by action, action, & more action.

Action ALONE is wrong, wrong, wrong.  There must be MEANING to the action.

I define "increasing the stakes" as:
A) we must SEE the jeopardy or obstacle; &
B) we must SEE how it makes it tougher for the protagonist to reach his goal. 

In Unforgiven, this happens in every scene, even the slow ones.


- We see Munny practice shooting a tin can at 15 yards.  He misses again & again. The stakes rise b/c how is he ever going to shoot Mike?

- Ned tricks The Kid into confessing he's practically blind beyond 50 yards.  The stakes rise b/c how can Munny trust a half-blind gunshooter to cover his back?

- Munny lets Ned, the only man he trusts, leave town.  The stakes rise b/c we wonder if Munny will come out of this alive to see his kids.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The key to increasing the stakes is to run your protagonist up an increasingly shakier & shakier tree so that we never know how he'll ever get back down.

Unforgiven (1992)
by David Webb Peoples

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: #27 WGA Script of All Time - Groundhog Day (1993)

For each of these Scripts of All Time, I'll focus on one skill of my choosing, and how the writer did it.

I'm going to focus on the setup of Act 1 of Groundhog Day.

[Why? Because I just listened to a Creative Screenwriting podcast with Michael Arndt re: Toy Story 3

Arndt lays out his steps for a great Act 1 & I'd like to see how it applies here.]

1 - Set up the character, the world he lives in & his passion.

Phil Connors is a man "full of himself" & thinks he's too good to cover Groundhog Day for his Pittsburgh tv station.  His passion is to make it big so he doesn't have to "be stuck with the groundhog for the rest of my life." (p. 3)

2 - Introduce a character's flaw, & bring a dark cloud in the horizon (inciting incident).  Show his fear, which is something that could harm his passion.

His flaw is that he's self-absorbed, & doesn't appreciate Rita, the segment producer. (p. 4)  He's also curt with a correspondent who's fallen for him [this is in the script, not in the movie].

This foreshadows how badly he deals with people (dark cloud), & his fear of having to interact with people in a real and vulnerable way.

3 - Fears are realized as a bolt of lightning appears from an outside source (outside than his regular realm). His world is turned upside down.

Snow blocks Phil from leaving. (p. 21)

4 - Make unhealthy choice to regain what he's lost.

He's rude to everyone at the bed & breakfast, Ned Ryerson, Rita, etc. (p. 27-35).  He desperately tries to get out of town.

5 - The goal of regaining what he's lost will drive the rest of the character's journey into Act 2.

Phil tries to get out of another Groundhog Day by killing himself, driving at high speeds, etc.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Groundhog Day has a great Act 1 b/c it neatly sets up the inciting incident.  We know who Phil is & we want to see if he ever gets out of Punxsutawney. 

I like Ardnt's Act 1 steps b/c they focus on making the character face his fear.  Something is always at stake ---> this leads to tension & a good story.

Groundhog Day (1993) 
by Danny Rubin & Harold Ramis

TODAY'S NUGGET: My November Goal/ Top Scripts of All Time

I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, but felt a bit left out.

So I decided to create my own goal-of-the-month: To read the top 30 scripts of all time.

Perhaps you'd like to play along?

The WGA's Top 101 scripts of all time are listed here:

[For those scripts that are unattainable, I'll watch the movie instead.]

Seeing as I'm already behind one day, I'll blog about #27 Groundhog Day (since I've read it already).  I plan to start with #30 Unforgiven today and work backwards in order.  I'll blog a nugget each day. 

Hope you'll read along & come back to comment.

Any comments or suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Why the Heat, But No Takers?

Today I read a spec comedy script that has gotten several requests. 

The catchy logline made me curious: It's a "What Women Want" with a frat boy twist.

Would the script live up to the promise?

I read.

I scratched my head.

The good news:  The writer can write.  He has a consistent voice & tone, and made sure the characters do arc.  There's a strong antagonist that puts the antagonist in real jeopardy.

The bad news: I wondered who would want to see this movie. 

This is a comedy (It is a comedy, right?  Or is it a rom-com?  No, comedy. I think it's a comedy.  But it could be a rom-com b/c there are sacrifices for love.)

It's aimed at's a nightmare.

Maybe guys because of the half that is the frat boy part?  Maybe women b/c the other half is a rom-com?

The problem is that the script tries to mesh the wrong ends of two genres, which left me dissatisfied.

I can see guys will complain there's not enough guy jokes.  Then women will complain the romance is sacrificed for guy jokes.

This script is good as a sample, because it shows the writer can set up a very broad comedy. 

However, I'd want to see more scripts from the writer.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even if you write a good script that attracts attention, it might not get past the slush pile. 

Your script must be technically great, deliver emotion, AND ALSO meet the audience's expectations for the genre. 

[This is what is often known as a "marketable" script.]

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

QUESTION FOR THE READER: When They're Lookin' at YOU

A blog reader asked, "What do production companies look for when they're evaluating a script for the writing ability?"

Excellent question!

When a production company evaluates the CONCEPT, they're thinking about
-whether there are similar films in production elsewhere
-whether it adds to the genre or is a repeat

When a production company evaluates a script for WRITING ABILITY, it's slightly different.

Technical skills? Check.

Unique voice? Check.

But what will set you apart is whether you can DELIVER THE EMOTIONAL GOODS.

If it's a father-son drama, does it cause men to weep & call their fathers?

If it's a family Christmas comedy, does it make the reader bust a gut & break out the eggnog even though it's July?

If it's a rom-com, does it hit that romantic chord of love nearly lost?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I might not like your script. I might not be in the mood to laugh/cry/shout.

But your script makes me feel & puts me RIGHT THERE with your characters. I'm so swept away that for a moment, it feels real.

ex. A friend told me her daughter finished reading Harry Potter, & was so angry that she couldn't go to Hogwarts in real life.

Now THAT is delivering the emotional goods. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Famous crime novelist Michael Connelly was a police reporter before he started writing. 

In yesterday's USA Today, an article about Connelly spoke of his admiration for legendary Miami Herald police reporter Edna Buchanan. 

"Buchanan added to her fame in his eyes with a lead about a would-be gunman shot dead at a fast-food counter: 'Gary Robinson died hungry.'"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: May we all be this succinct. 

In four words, this reporter tells us:
- the protagonist of the story
- what happened to him
- with some humor

There's no fat on that sentence, yet it has a very distinctive voice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Does My Arc Look Flat?

Everyone knows there's no good answer if a woman asks "Do I look fat?"

Same thing applies if someone asks me, "Does my arc look flat?"

[OK, no one has ever asked me if his/her story arc is flat.]

[OK, no one really thinks about the arcs at all.]

But this week I had a heavy duty dose of arc work on a couple scripts. 

So here's what has been on my mind.

 - When you don't know what is wrong with your script, I'm almost 90% sure the arc is flat.

- Think of a rainbow arc.  The character arc is the layer upon layer of colors.  The story arc is how it stretches from left to right.

- The best scripts are when the character arc and the story arc parallel each other.  Both should escalate. (Escalate = more conflict.)

- Script problems pop up when all we see is a kaleidoscope of colors (plenty of character) but no story.  Or a single color (great plot & story) but no character.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The answer is yes, it looks flat.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Your Protagonist as Bait

Stop protecting your freakin' protagonist and feed him to the wolves.

Yeah, I'm talking to you.

(Do you see me talking to anyone else?)

You have a comedy? Your lead should slip on a banana peel often.

You have an action flick? Very easy to get run over by a bus, then a truck, then a semi.

Got a sci-fi? Aliens make great eating machines. They even come in different colors.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you like your character, then stick his head in the shark's jaw. 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Rule of Two

I am cranky.

Recently, I covered a script that failed to remember the Rule of Two.

Thus, I am cranky.

And lost.  I got really lost b/c the script wandered from the Rule of Two.

What is the Rule of Two?  Glad you asked.

I will not be cranky at you if you remember the Rule of Two.

The Rule of Two = The story always, always, always revolves around the PROTAGONIST & ANTAGONIST fighting. 

I do not care if you have an ensemble cast.  How does the ensemble support or conflict with the Two?

I do not care about your jokes unless they involve the Two. 

I do not care if there's a monkey stealing the scene.  If the Two are using the monkey as a carrier pigeon, then that's ok.  Otherwise, I don't care about the monkey.

Why is this rule so important?  Because otherwise the script:

- goes off on tangents.  ex. The script veered off from the athlete (protagonist) & became a documentary (bystander started commenting at the camera).

- becomes individual episodes, not one continuous story.  ex.  I can't follow 3 A stories with 3 different protagonists.  Please don't make me do it.

- gets thrown in the slush 'cause it's too hard to follow. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: All you need is Two.

Friday, August 6, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: William Goldman & a 2nd @#$)(*%!! Great Introduction

Goldman does it again.


Here's the description of Coop, the lawman. Watch how Goldman:

1) describes Coop as the lawman every man wants to be;
2) inspires our trust in Coop.

" As Maverick turns --


[THIS IS#1.  I want to be called "just incredible looking," don't you?!]

--we'll find out son enough his name is ZANE COOPER.

He is raw-boned, blue-eyed, muscle & sinew; rugged as they come.  There is also something about him we don't know yet but we will: Coop is so good, so fucking honorable, he seems like someone out of another era --

--which in point of fact, he is.  Coop is the western hero who dominated movies for the most of this century. In other words, we are looking at John Wayne or Gary Cooper.

Not only has he never done anything bad, the thought of doing anything bad has never crossed his mind."

[THIS IS #2.  We now believe anything Coop says. This continues until Act 3 when he shows himself to be a double-crosser. But by that time, we've been rooting for Coop so long that it really is a surprise.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  This intro is crafted very specifically so the audience has complete, utter confidence in Coop.

Why is this important?  Because too many scripts today try to be smarter than the audience.

Here, Goldman sets up our expectations & doesn't betray us.

No red herrings.

No "look how clever I am" hints.

Until the crucial moment.

Then WHAM!  The twist.

This is why he's William Goldman.  Story is first.

TODAY'S NUGGET: William Goldman & a @#$)(*%!! Great Introduction

My Ode to Goldman:

"William Goldman, I bow to thee.
You are one oh one in clarity.
Your intros are deceptively easy.
Oh, how I love the simplicity."

In the script "Maverick," notice how Goldman:

1) describes Maverick;
2) makes us like him;
3) adds conflict so we're waiting for Maverick to act.

"MAVERICK's 30, give or take.  Enormously appealing. Whether that's because of his considerable physical skills or his sunny personality, who knows. It might be his quiet wit.

[THIS IS #1 & 2. I like him. I don't know why. But I do.]

In any case, we are looking at a handsome young man that everybody likes --

--oops --

--make that almost everybody."  [THIS IS #3. I can't wait to see who doesn't like him.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Goldman's writing is not just simple and clear.

It also has conflict, a sense of humor, fun, & keeps escalating.


Monday, August 2, 2010

TODAY'S 2ND NUGGET: "Recipe" for Rom-Coms

In line with my previous "recipe" for comedy scripts, here's my "recipe" for rom-coms:

Rom-coms are like fruit cobblers.


Because it's 80% fruit (romance b/t protagonist & lover). 

[Romance = an emotional ride in which the conflict between them reveals flaws & issues ---> which then MUST MUST MUST be resolved by showing why the protagonist & lover are good together as a team.]

The crust is 10% butter (protagonist & lover against the antagonist) plus 10% flour (comedy).

NOTE: Many people don't like fruit & that's ok.

THREE common reasons people don't like rom-coms b/c:

A) Fruit is too predictable!

My two cents: Rom-coms are predictable b/c the emotional arc for falling in love tends to take a predictable journey. 

ex. Cute meet --> a period of discovery & courtship --> tests --> then a moment the parties admit they're in love.

If any part is missing, it feels false. 
If it's too much out of order, it feels unorganized.
But ask anyone how they fell in love & it follows a certain arc.

B) Fruit should be mashed with other fruits!

My two cents: I'm all for making cross genre films.  However, action films w/ romance, or dramas w/ romance, are mostly about the ACTION or the DRAMA, not purely about the emotional journey of falling in love. 

Rom-coms are about the trials & tribulations of figuring out how to put your heart in someone else's care.  We don't really care about the action or events around relationship.  We care about the RELATIONSHIP.

C) Fruit is kinda rotten these days!

My two cents: I am not a big fan of recent "so called rom-coms" either. 

There are lots of things that sour audiences:

ex.  We don't believe the girl should choose a guy who abuses her.  Why is that funny? Or romantic?

ex. We don't believe a guy who obviously doesn't "get" a woman, but suddenly falls in love w/ her in Act 3.  That's shallow.  It's a disaster.  How is this going to last when they're not even a good team in Act 1 & 2?

ex. We want to believe that these two are going to be ok together.  If they fall apart in the end, then it's not a rom-com. 


Sunday, August 1, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Seeking Romance

Rom-coms - the Final Frontier.

I'm fascinated with how hard rom-coms are to write. 

Billy Mernit describes the rom-com plot essentially as "why 2 people should be together." 

But oh, how that often fails in the movies.

I recently found Popcorn Dialogues, a podcast/blog by two highly acclaimed, award winning, romance authors Jennifer Crusie and Lucy March.  (And, oh yeah, they've both taught romance writing for years.)

Every Friday night, they watch a classic rom-com movie & simultaneously host a Tweet chat (#PopD).  On Saturday, they post an hour long iTunes podcast analyzing & rating the structure, romance & comedy.

The goal is to see how the romance does/does not develop in the film. 

I was very surprised how many good movies suck at romance, but are still considered "classic rom-coms."

I've listened to #1-9 so far, & love the nuggets hidden within:

- Farce usually squashes any romance (Bringing Up Baby)

- If the romance isn't there, all the craft in the world can't save it (Pillow Talk)

- Wanting to be together isn't enough. You must show the characters relating & connecting.
(every single movie)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The mistake too many screenwriters make is that the man (usually) doesn't show that he "understands the woman."  

Now THAT'S romance.

Please adjust accordingly.

('Cause if you don't, Crusie/March won't sell you the movie rights to their books.

Just kidding. I have no idea if the movie rights are sold.

But if they're not, they should be.

Preferably to me.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Comedy Should Be Added Last

I see a few common problems with comedy specs, but none so much as trying to be funny without laying the foundation.

Comedy plots should be built like cakes. 

First you figure out measure out flour (what the character wants).

Then add eggs (antagonist).

Add baking soda (conflict).

Pinch of salt (flaw being exposed).

Stir things up.  Then bake. 

When the plot has cooled, then ice with the comedy layer.

Why is comedy last?  Isn't the audience looking for the funny?

Yes, the audience is looking for that icing layer.  They want to laugh. 

But as soon as they take that first bite, they will spew it out --- unless there's a good foundational cake underneath.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Although cakes are consumed icing first, they are built cake first.

I can spot new writers b/c their comedy scripts have no plot, & are based on joke-joke-joke. 

Real writers set up the script as if it's a drama.  Then upon rewrite after rewrite, they add the comedy, jokes, prat falls, etc. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

TOP 10 CHECKLIST: Before You Submit...

I wrote this checklist awhile ago, but don't remember posting it here.

(And if I did, world, you're not listening.  So read this list again.)

1.  The script should be stripped to bare bones. No unessential plots, characters, or scenes.

If not, I will put down your script.

2.  Electricity should shoot through your script easily. If there are wandering or confusing scenes, electricity will stop.

And I will put down your script.

3.  Have you addressed all the things I will look for:  Premise, Character, Conflict, Structure, Dialogue?

4.  Have you properly introduced: a) the rules to your world (ESPECIALLY in Sci-fi and Horror), and b) the characters in the 1st ten pages?  Don't make me guess.

5.  All chase, fight, & love scenes must develop character & push the story forward.

A gratuitous love scene can kill the mood.  An emotionally laden one will get you a Twilight-like following.

6.  All subplots should mirror, or support the main plot.  This is NOT the minor character's story.

7. Tension-release (also known as hope-fear) is crucial.  Not tension-tension-tension.

8. Does your script read vertically?  If not, read this.

9.  Typos, grammar errors, & exceeding the proper page limit, begone.
The standard is still 120 pgs for drama, & around 90-110 for comedies.  Err on the side that less is more.

10. Cover page should be title, name, address (yours or your agent’s), email, phone.  No need for WGA # or copyright.  We assume you’ve registered with WGA &/or Library of Congress.

WHAT I'VE KNOW:  Keep me reading = I boogie-woogie. 

Slow me down = I slush. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Want, I Want, I Want

What do you do when you're stuck writing?

Really, really stuck so you can't make heads or tails of the problem?

Pick one:

A. Indulge in the 20 scoop Vermonster, hot fudge, banana, cookies, brownies, and all of your favorite toppings at Ben and Jerry's. 

B. Call me to brainstorm consult the crap out of the story.

C. Read actor/writer/director/amazing Alan Alda.

For me, "Alan Alda's interview on storytelling on film" is my new go-to, how-to article.

I was particularly drawn to his words on what the character wants:

"I can always tell, I think, when conflict is concocted in a hastily written television drama, like a cop drama, because it looks like the writer has struggled to find ways in which the characters disagree, because that writer's convinced that the essence of it is conflict.

But that's missing the point, I think. You automatically get conflict if people in fact want something, and want it so passionately that they believe they deserve to have what they want."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's all about following what the character wants. When you're stuck, follow the want.

Don't miss the example about the 2nd story window. 

"I think people are drawn to watch people who want things."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Shameless Plug for: theOffice

I got a nice email from theOffice about their shared workspace built specifically for writers.  I've been by & it seems like really calm writing digs for those times when you need to run away from home.

They're located in Santa Monica & offer one week free memberships for Twitter followers!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Midpoint Madness

Bill Pace (, a NYC writer/teacher/filmmaker, twittered 2 articles that he uses when he gets stuck at the Midpoint. They're worth downloading. Thanks to him for generously sharing with us!

The 1st is a list of helpful midpoint definitions & examples.

The 2nd is titled ACT II - THE ELUSIVE HEART OF THE SCREENPLAY by Jengo Robinson, a London script consultant, which analyzes The Graduate.

I really liked the latter article b/c it shows WHAT the midpoint's purpose is (heighten drama) and more importantly, HOW to ramp up to it and what to do after it.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Many scripts flatten in Act 2. Why? Often it's b/c they are not driving toward a midpoint where something drastically changes & now the protagonist is in an unforeseen mad, mad world.

(In the article above, Robinson calls this the "flip the script" moment.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Feelin' Sorry for Me

I'd like to talk today about feelin' sorry. (And if I can get you to feel sorry for me, all the better.)

Recently, I read in an article that the top 3 techniques to get to the emotional core of a character is pathos (feelin' sorry), humanity & admiration.* 

Pathos is the quickest way of the three.  (It happens to be my favorite & I'm not apologizing for it. So there.)

But how do you write pathos?

For those of you who have the magazine, go read the article & its well thought out answers.

For those who don't, you have the rest of this blog. (Be afraid. Be very afraid.)

So here's my two cents: I firmly believe that sympathizing with a character requires showing a FLAW.  I've written about it in several places, but it all boils down to feelin' sorry for the sad sap ...who's got problems just like you & me.

But you knew that b/c you're a regular blog reader, right?

[What do you mean you haven't been reading my blog? For all that's holy, do it now, man, NOW!

Flaws vs. Goals vs. Motives
Honestly, What Is Your Flaw?]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I like feelin' sorry, b/c that means the character has something really at stake, and thus has an arc to travel.  

* The article is "Pixar's Emotional Core: The Secret to Successful Storytelling," Creative Screenwriting Magazine, May/June 2010, by Karl Iglesias, p. 54-57.  He's also written a book, "Writing for Emotional Impact."

And no, I am not being paid to write about this article.  Just sayin'.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: When a Cat Brings You a Baby Bird

I'm cat sitting and was stunned today when the cat raced into the house with a FLAPPING BABY BIRD in her mouth. 

Holy cow! What was I supposed to do? I wanted to run screaming "EWWW!" from the room, but knew I needed to get that bird away.

This is the kind of situation you want for your characters: They MUST make a decision either one way or the other, & there's no way out.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't run like a pansy and let the cat run the show.  The main character must take charge & make pro-active decisions.

(Yes, I did get the baby bird away.  Unfortunately, the damage had already been done & it passed to Shady Acres soon thereafter.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Push Me Forward

Question: What is the most common problem I see in scripts? 
Answer: A narrative that lists to the left or right (or outright sinks the boat).

My most consistent comment/complaint/prayer/begging in coverage is: You Don't Push Me Forward.  You MUST push me forward.

But what does that mean in practical terms?

It means that every line ADVANCES the story. 

The tendency is to bask in the moment, especially in the reaction shots.  Every line - YES, EVERY LINE - should leave us wondering, rooting, curious, aghast, horrified at what is coming next. 

ex. Heroine steps on the gas to make the red light, and just swerves to miss a traffic cop. She weakly smiles and waves apologetically.

Let's focus on the weak reaction shot.  It shows that the character feels guilty.  Fine, but it's a dead end narrative b/c it does nothing to keep us reading. 

[This is the perfect time for me to take a snack break.  Hint: Don't give me an excuse to eat Cheetos.  Once my face is covered in cheese dust, there's no reason to return to your script.]

Here are some better alternatives:

ex. She taunts him with a "f- you" smile, and speeds up, despite the flashing red lights.  [Horrific! What cop would stand for that disrespect? Must read on...]

ex. Heavy with guilt, she shouts, "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I'm --" Suddenly, she collapses at the wheel.  [Holy cow! Is this woman epileptic? Must read on...]

ex. When the cop pulls her over, she's "penitent" - and palms him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  [Bribery! Good conflict.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: These are called "moving pictures" because something must be moving on the screen.

And yes, there is an hierarchy of snacks.  If I'm deep into my second pint of mint chocolate chip, then you've lost me for good.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Monkey on Your Back

I started to read a drama spec written by an A list writer about a month ago.  But I had to put it down, but not for the usual reasons.

Frankly, it was scary as hell.

I've read more violent horror scripts.

I've read more psychologically jarring scripts.

But this script crept into the space between my body and my soul, & freaked me out about the things I take for granted, like being able to identify my blind spot.

It was like a monkey that clings to your back. You get rid of the monkey & think you're safe. But then you look in the mirror & see that that monkey has hidden in that blind spot & never left - - & may never leave.

The writer kept the pressure on, even in the lulls.  He increased the tension to pitch levels by mixing a few false sightings of that monkey, a few real reflections of the Evil Antagonist, and false imaginations. 

Oh, and add the disappointment of your family? Deadly.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes fear is knowing that a monkey is going to give you rabies & you just can't avoid it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: How I Know It's Good Writing

Today I want to talk about good writing.

[Why? Because I've seen too much bad writing this week, but I digress.]

I know it's Good Writing when...

- I remember your scene even though it's six months later.

- I quote your dialogue back to you.  (And I rarely quote dialogue word for word.)

- I can act out your scene to strangers in the grocery store.

- I can pitch your script to my far-from-the-industry-sister without a pained expression because I actually get your script. (And she likes it, which is a good sign. Because after all, she's your if-I-like-it-I-will-buy-all-the-paraphernalia type.)

- You made me glad you scared the crap out of me.  Because I don't like to be scared, and if you can make me glad, then you've really done an outstanding job.  (Didja follow that?)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Good writing inspires others to get passionate, to get behind the script, to fund the movie. 

So it all comes back to the page.  You're only as good (or bad) as your product.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Importance of Being Urgent

I am cranky. Again.

OK, it's not an unusual sight, but I really am cranky after reading a tween sci-fi spec spec that didn't have a sense of urgency.

Urgency = "This Very Important Problem must be solved because..."

Here are the top 3 reasons this story lacked urgency:

1 - The story structure wanders & does not increase in tension. 

ex. The script indulges in unnecessary back story of the adults, and goes into depth with their storylines. (Uh, excuse me, this is a TWEEN movie.)

2- The main character is a Teen Boy who is never really in jeopardy.

ex. Teen Boy doesn't have to face the antagonist even at the most crucial moment.  Even at the climax, the best friend defeats the enemy and rescues everyone. 

3 - MOST GLARING: There is no reason to go on this journey because there's nothing really at stake for the Teen Boy. 

ex.  He's going on this trip for the good of mankind.  Not to save a dog. Or to impress a girl. Or to defend his home from the enemy. 

I'm all about helping mankind, but in a movie, it's too far removed and frankly, non-visual.  I need to SEE something at stake.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Urgency stems from the character's need to accomplish a TASK THAT MATTERS.

This script had a lot of action, action, action.  But without consequences or stakes, the endless action seemed fruitless and boring.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Am Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Furious Love was just released yesterday.  It's a book of love letters between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, written with the cooperation of Miss White Diamonds herself.

Why do we still care about the Taylor-Burton relationship?

1) They lived on a really grand scale when stars were STARS;
2) They were two very talented people from very different backgrounds; and
3) The love-hate, can't-live-with-you-can't-live-without-you, let's-get-married-divorced-married-divorced dynamic.  In other words, conflict.

Conflict kept them together, but drove them apart.

And their movie roles were similarly at odds.

I confess I could barely stand watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the conflict made me sweat bullets.  But I couldn't but help watch Taylor go off the deep end.  I really wanted Burton's facade to crack and slap her. 

I realize that a lot of scripts don't keep up that level of conflict & driving need to win.  Smart writers know that even the lulls aren't really lulls.  Conflict must be there all the time. 

It's exhausting.  Which is why movies aren't exactly real life.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: After the movie ended, I saw why this couple mesmerized the public both on screen and off.

CONFLICT.   (And that level of hostility is why Virginia Woolf was darn scary.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: "A Star is Born" Times Four

When I heard that the movie "A Star is Born" may be remade for the fourth time, I wondered why it is continually remade approx. every 20 years (1937, 1954, 1976)?

What is the fascination with this tale of a rising star and destruction of another falling star?

Hmmm.  I knew I must investigate.

So over the weekend, I watched the 1976 Barbara Streisand and 1954 Judy Garland versions. 

(I would've watched the 1937 version, but don't have access to a VHS right now.  This is another reason I will never throw away my VHS at home. The end.)

Here's three things I saw & my hopes for the 2011 (2012? 2013?) version:

- Every 20 yrs., there is a new "Esther Blodgett" who epitomizes that decade.  Judy Garland was right for 1954.  She was a career woman who shone as a movie musical star. Streisand was a more woman's lib Esther who toured as a headliner. 

The new Esther won't be hemmed in as a paid player in the studio system (Garland), or have to prove she can headline (Streisand). 

Today's Esther is an independent contractor who absolutely headlines her own tour.  I'd be curious to see how she handles actually have too many choices. She might have fewer excuses, more demands, less privacy, more invasive press. 

- In both versions, it's Esther vs. her husband in a universal conflict of her success vs. his success. Only one can win.

I liked that both versions didn't try to dilute how tough that dynamic is. 

Judy Garland especially has a powerful scenes where she explains she's at the edge and can't take it any more as she watches her husband slowly destroy himself day after day.

- I think this movie is about 1) pride, and 2) functioning in the glare of fame.  Today's Esther will have to face a different world than Judy or Barbara. 

There is less respect for privacy, and much more public pressure & discussion of "what a star should do" on talk shows & magazine covers.  Whether or not successful stars want to admit it, it's hard to not be influenced by people's opinion of your spouse. 

I'd like to see a new demon coming from within Esther rather than from the outside.  How does she deal with her own feelings of disappointment?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The story is timeless because there can only be one "head of household." 

The question is: Can we agree who that breadwinner is?

Friday, May 28, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: "Her Face is Flat"

Today I watched one of those cake competitions on TV.  One competitor recreated Snow White's face in sugar.  She said as an aside, "Her face is too flat. I should've gone more dramatic."

"Hmmmm," I thought, "Flat is a good word."  It made me think of the flat character descriptions I've encountered.   How do you round out a character?  Especially when you only have a line or two to be dramatic?

My #1 recommendation: Make sure every action does double duty, i.e., one movement reveals both character/thought and conflict.  

[Commercial break for the Everlasting Critic (EC).

EC: Well, duh.  But conflict?  Are you kidding?
Me: Does this face lie? Wait a minute. You can't see my face.
EC: What about sitting? 
Me: Yup.
EC: I do not mean squirming. I mean sitting still.
Me: I said YUP.
EC: Prove it.

ex. "Salty slouches in the porch rocker, apparently dead... except his trigger finger was itching for that jackrabbit to dare cross his lawn."

I win!

End of commercial.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The world is round, not flat. Ergo, people should be round, not flat.

[I didn't take Logic in undergrad. So sue me.]

Friday, May 21, 2010


One of the things with which I struggle is expressing the character's stakes.  How does one show the character's motive? This is ultra important because it's the reason the character really goes on the journey.

Today I read a spec script that helped me. 

It was about a man whose wife was violently attacked by a stranger.  The devil appears and offers the man a choice: do you want revenge on the stranger, or remain helpless?  If I help you with the revenge, then you must do me a favor in return.  Of course the man accepts, and off we go on the adventure (and we're only on p. 12).

The script did a nice job of setting up my expectations & building to the decision moment: 

- First, we're lulled into a sense of security. This couple are shown really connected, loving.  They "get" each other and are so sweet together that we can't help but root for them...yet we know it can't last b/c it's only p. 2-3.

- She goes out one night without him.  Bad move. But good for us, as the tension is ratcheted up.  We know something bad is going to happen to her.  This is around p. 5.

- She goes to her car alone. Ooooh, you know Oprah always warns us not to do that.   We expect her to be assaulted.

- Yep, the violence happens and we're conflicted.  On the one hand, we're relieved we know what happened.  But on the other, we're outraged that it happened to such a nice person. 

Notice how this sequence has positioned the reader at a different level of tension. 

We're involved now.  We're invested.  We need to know how this is going to resolve.  The writer did a nice job of showing us why we should care and keeping us engaged.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I was convinced that the man would go to the ends of the earth for this woman because of what I saw between them from p. 1-4. 

Boy, those moments of hope are really key!  Without them, I'd wonder if the devil's bargain would be worth it.
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