Thursday, December 22, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #48 WGA Script of All Time - Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)

[Quick Summary: At first, a British colonel POW defies the Japanese war camp commander over building a bridge, but eventually adopts the enemy's task with enthusiasm.]

Alas, I had a hard time reading this script.  Just not my cup of tea.

However, I did find it interesting how the writer used the image of a pin up calendar girl in the Japanese commander's office. 

This image was seen several times, always in the background or the commander looking directly at it.

As the story moves along, the commander looks crazier & crazier in contrast to the girl who remains the same...and that's a great way to tell a story without "telling" a story.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The right props can keep engaging the audience - all without dialogue.

Bridge On the River Kwai (1957)
by Pierre Boulle

Thursday, December 15, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #49 WGA Script of All Time - Schindler's List (1993)

[Quick Summary: Businessman Oscar Schindler easily bargains/bribes/bullies to keep his factory open, but he is unprepared by the effect his Jewish workers have on him.]

I've seen lots of ensemble spec scripts.  They usually aren't very pretty for one of 3 reasons:

1) Too sprawling
2) Too many characters to juggle in my head
3) Too many subplots fighting to be the main plot

So I was glad to read Schindler's List & see an ensemble script done right.  Here's why:

1) Though the enormity of the Holocaust is the backdrop, it's really an intimate story about ONE man.

2) All characters are there to support the ONE man, Schindler. 

Even if Schindler is not in the scene, the characters' actions will somehow affect or tie into Schindler.

3) All the subplots are there to support Schindler. 

ex. The Nazis have their own agendas, but their purpose in this story is to provide obstacles for SCHINDLER. A woman may want to get her parents moved to the factory, but her purpose in this story is to provoke SCHINDLER into action.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Frankly, ensemble scripts are easier to follow if there's ONE main character to form the spine around.

Schindler's List (1993)
by Steve Zaillian

Monday, December 5, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #50 WGA Script of All Time - The Sixth Sense (1999)

[Quick Summary: A child psychologist tries to help a child who sees dead people (but doesn't know they're dead).]

When The Sixth Sense came out, I avoided it like the plague.

I don't like scary stuff, or reading scary stuff, or watching scary stuff.

But this script is on the official WGA list, so I read it.

Now I can confidently say that if you haven't read this script, you should for 2 reasons:

1) The reading is wonderfully vertical (thus the reading speed is very fast).

2) Everyone thinks the big reveal at the end makes this script special. But I've broken down and rebuilt enough stories to know that Shyamalan's skill is really shown in how he constructs the setup. 

ex. Throughout the script, Anna avoids speaking to Malcolm in realistic ways:

- He thinks she's speaking to him, but she's actually speaking on the phone.
- She laughs with someone, and he turns away, hurt that she's not laughing with him. 

We think she's mad at him (setup), only to find out later she isn't (reveal).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I like that this script is devoid of "Look at me! See how clever I am!" tricks and gimmicks. 

Instead, there are solid story building blocks put together in a clever way.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
by M. Night Shyamalan

Saturday, December 3, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #51 WGA Script of All Time - Broadcast News (1987)

[Quick Summary: A driven female news producer is torn between two men: the new, handsome, not-so-talented news anchor, and the older, talented news anchor-on-the-way-out who is her friend.]

The more I read scripts, the more I see that scripts operate on two levels: spectacle & heart.  You need both parts.

The better the two blend, the better the movie.

Broadcast News is a perfect example. 

It's got the spectacle and rush of the big news room. 

But it's also got the heart of a woman, torn between a guy who's probably the devil but exciting, and a schlub who's like a pair of old sneakers but brilliant.

The love story is enhanced by the spectacle of the news room.  If Jane doesn't pick the right guy, the level of journalism could disintegrate.

The spectacle is enhanced by the romance.  If Jane demands the journalistic integrity she's worked so hard for, she could be alone for the rest of her life.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The right amount of spectacle + heart = Fantastic story.

Too much spectacle = There's no heart.

Too much heart = It's maudlin & boring.

Broadcast News (1987)
by James L. Brooks

Monday, November 28, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #52 WGA Script of All Time - Lady Eve (1941)

[Quick Summary: After a con woman and a rich, gullible ophiologist (a snake scientist) fall in love and split up, she disguises herself as English aristocracy to dupe him once more.]

Farce is a tough genre.  It's just too easy to go too far with the satirical comedy or improbable plots.

So why does it work here? 

According to Roger Ebert, this story avoids the mistake of many films and gives a "baseline of sanity to measure the characters against....Henry Fonda is the rock."

Fonda is the gullible (but not stupid) snake scientist.  He doesn't want to use Barbara Stanwyck for his career.  He's sincere and earnest as he pursues her. He's puzzled by the "coincidences" but chalks it up to feeling more alive just by being with her.  He's truly, madly, crazy in love.

So when he doesn't realize Barbara's dad is blatantly hustling him at cards, we believe him.

When he "happens" to get a photo showing Barbara is a con, we're crushed along with him.

When Barbara creates an English persona and Fonda does not recognize her AT ALL, it all makes sense.

We believe in Fonda, even if everything else is truly preposterous.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Farce can be way, way over the top - but only if there's at least one person who makes it feel real.

Lady Eve (1941)
by Preston Sturges

Thursday, November 17, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #53 WGA Script of All Time - All the President's Men (1976)

[Quick Summary: In 1972, two rookie journalists piece together that a minor burglary at the Watergate building is a front for a much bigger political scheme.]

Dang, William Goldman can really write.

This script sucks you in & makes you care, the hallmarks of an exceptional storyteller.

One thing I picked up is his use of point of view.

The script focuses on the reporters Woodward and Bernstein. When they find out information, so does the audience, and thus the reveals are very natural.  The audience is truly along for the ride, and becomes invested in the outcome.

But what if Goldman chose to follow the campaign workers or the crooks as the main characters instead?

I think the story would not have been as good.

In the script, Woodward and Bernstein were on the offensive, and literally chased down clues.

A story about the campaign workers would've been more about damage control and defensive p.r....not as interesting.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The right point of view can really make the story flow.

The wrong one often lends itself to a clunky story.

All the President's Men (1976)
by William Goldman

Friday, November 11, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #54 WGA Script of All Time - Manhattan (1979)

[Quick Summary: A unhappily divorced man falls for his best friend's mistress. Woody Allen type chaos ensues.]

This story is about a guy who falls for his friend's mistress against his better judgment, & is left with egg on his face when the mistress goes back to the friend.

The script is approx. 90% dialogue & it's ok there's very little narrative.

Why? The emotional conflict is so primal, so full of contradiction, so ripe for heart break again & again that it totally engrosses you.

MARY (chuckling): Oh well, how about Vincent Van Gogh (pronouncing it "Goch")...or Ingar Bergman?
IKE: (overlapping) Van Goch? (Aside, to Tracy) Did she say "Van GOch"?
MARY (to Yale): How about Ingmar Bergman?
IKE (overlapping, shaking his head): Van Goch.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Above all, keep the emotion raw.

Manhattan (1979)
by Woody Allen
Four Films of Woody Allen (book published 1982)

Friday, November 4, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #55 WGA Script of All Time - Apocalypse Now (1979)

[Quick Summary from IMDB: During the on-going Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade Green Beret who has set himself up as a God among a local tribe.]

I know this is considered a classic, a movie of its time, among the first about Vietnam.

I know Rotten Tomatoes calls it a "masterpiece" & "brilliant", & gives it an extremely rare 99%.

But I don't get this script.  I barely understood it until p. 100 of 155 pages.  I even had to use the logline from IMDB because I was unable to make up my own. 

Coppola clearly had a vision, given the finished film.  But I couldn't see it on the page. 

I didn't know why Willard is really on this journey. Tell me again why I want him to succeed?

I don't know what is the purpose of locating crazy Kurtz. To show the fruitlessness of war? To criticize the decision to go to war?  I have no idea.

I exited the jungle very dissatisfied...but even worse than that, I learned squat.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I simply don't get this script, but wish I did. Anyone care to comment?

Apocalypse Now (1979)
by Francis Ford Coppola

Thursday, October 27, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #56 WGA Script of All Time - Back to the Future (1985)

[Quick Summary: When a teenager accidentally gets sent back to the past & meets his parents, he must ensure they fall in love, or he'll cease to exist.]
I was really worried for Marty McFly. There are real, urgent consequences to his situation.

If he doesn't get his dad to the dance, his parents won't meet, & he'll cease to exist.

If he doesn't push his mom toward his dad, they won't fall in love, & he'll cease to exist.

If he doesn't find Doc, he's stuck in the past without any help.

If he doesn't get to Main Street at the exact time, he will miss his one chance to get home.

If Marty fails, the world won't end, but the consequences are important TO HIM.  And that's why I really worried.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Tell me what is so urgent.  I need to know why the character MUST succeed.

Back to the Future (1985)
by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale

Friday, October 21, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #57 WGA Script of All Time - Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989)

[Quick Summary: An opthamologist has his mistress killed, & a documentary filmmaker falls for another woman.]

I couldn't find this script available anywhere (boooooo!)

So I re-watched the movie instead (yayyyyyy!)

But it wasn't the same (boooo!)

I was particularly disappointed because this film has many, MANY flashbacks, and it's rare to see flashbacks done right.

(And by "right", I mean flashbacks are there for a specific reason, and not just information dumping.)

In this film, Woody Allen uses flashbacks to show a character's PRESENT EMOTIONAL STATE.  That's right - he uses the past to show motives, and/or what the character is feeling NOW.

ex.  The mistress waits for her married lover Judah.

The scene goes back to a happy moment when she and Judah walked on the beach.  Judah voices doubts: "I don't think we should do this here."  She distracts him and mixes up Schubert with Schuman.  Judah reassures her: "I'll teach you...some day we'll have a lot of time."

Why is the flashback there? It shows us why the mistress is holding on so tight to Judah NOW.

In the past, they had fun together. He was debonair, he cared about her.  He even seemed to promise a future together ("some day we'll have a lot of time").

When the scene returns to the present, it's clear why the mistress feels the way she does.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The flashback can show motive & PRESENT emotional stakes.

ex. If the mistress loses Judah, she loses the only joy her life seems to have.

Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989)
by Woody Allen

Friday, October 14, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #58 WGA Script of All Time - Ordinary People (1980)

[Quick Summary: After his well-liked older brother dies, a teenage boy grapples with his feelings, his concerned father, & a bitter mother.]

I really like how this script resolves a household in hell.

In Act 3, Conrad (the son) has a significant breakthrough.  The only thing left to wrap up is the subplot of the parents' rocky marriage.

- The husband sees Conrad healthy for the first time, & also sees that it's such a stark contrast to the wife's (antagonist) unrelenting indifference. 

- The husband breaks down & weeps. He can't go back to the way things were.

- The wife tells Conrad she's leaving.  She's bewildered & has no idea what really just happened.

- The wife breaks down in her bedroom. "She can't find safety [in her familiar surroundings]."

What a satisfying emotional ending!  The good guys learned & grew. 

The antagonist continues her superficial existence because she refused to learn or change.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When the protagonists are better off than when they started, it's a good day.

Ordinary People (1980)
by Alvin Sargent

Friday, October 7, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #59 WGA Script of All Time - It Happened One Night (1934)

[Quick Summary: When a spoiled heiress tries to make it home to New York with only a few dollars in her pocket, a journalist helps her out in order to scoop a story, but inadvertently falls in love with her.]

This script is 67 years old, yet it's got more romantic zippity-do-dah than many rom-coms today.

1) Peter (Clark Gable) gets Ellie (Claudette Colbert).

ex. When Ellie gives a poor boy their last dollar, Peter silently admires her for it.

2) Ellie gets Peter.

ex. She silently realizes he's conning the police...& she plays along without missing a beat.

3) They have fun, exasperating adventures together.

ex.  Ellie complains that she's hungry. After Peter slips away to find food, Ellie panics.  She yells for him, since she's never really been alone before. Peter comes running. She says she's so scared that she's no longer hungry. Peter wants to wring her neck.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I want more "they belong together."  I want more of this thing called "chemistry".

It Happened One Night (1934)
by Robert Riskin

Thursday, September 29, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #60 WGA Script of All Time - L.A. Confidential (1997)

[Quick Summary: In post-war L.A., three very different cops face corruption in three intertwining stories.]

Helgeland & Hanson are good writers.  Damn good.

Of the 71 scripts I've read so far on this list, this is the only one that keeps THREE protagonists with THREE story lines going at once.

(In an interview, Hanson said that producers tried to get him to reduce the number of protagonists, but he resisted.)

How did they make it easy to follow?

1) The three story lines are like three strands of a braid.  All are distinct, but will eventually combine to form one unit.

2) It is always clear which protagonists' story it is, even if the other protagonists are present.

ex. Early on, Bud's partner gets in trouble.  Exley agrees to testify against Bud's partner in exchange for a promotion.  For the rest of the script, Bud tries to clear the partner's name.

This is Bud's story line.  Exley is not involved... until much later when Exley's story crosses with Bud's.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This story wouldn't have been as good with 2 protagonists. 

It is possible to have three protagonists...but only if the story remains tight.

L.A. Confidential (1997)
by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson

Thursday, September 22, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #61 WGA Script of All Time - Silence of the Lambs (1991)

[Quick Summary: A female FBI agent-to-be must elicit information out of the incarcerated psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter in order to find the serial killer Buffalo Bill.]

In this script, I really like how Clarice Starling is introduced to us.  We infer a lot about her personally through her actions.

- She's polite.

ex. In the middle of Crawford's long dialogue: "Claire notices, in the corner of the room, a rumpled cot, a hot plate, soiled dishes. She looks back at him."  (p. 3)

The absence of Clarice speaking here shows us that she's too polite to mention the mess.

- She's vulnerable.

ex. "Clarice flinches as a heavy steel gate CLANGS shut behind her, the bolt shooting home."  (p. 5)

- She thinks fast on her feet.

ex. "CLARICE (quickly blocking him): Dr. Chilton - if Lecter feels you're his enemy, then maybe I'll have more luck by myself. What do you think?" (p. 7)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Another way to look at "Show, not tell" is to infer.

This allows the audience to put 2 + 2 together for themselves.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)
by Ted Tally

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #62 WGA Script of All Time - Moonstruck (1987)

[Quick Summary: After a mousy accountant gets engaged, she visits her fiancee's brother to invite him to the wedding, & falls in love with him.]

The thing about John Patrick Shanley's dialogue is that it is funny AND realistic, WITH subtext & attitude, WITHOUT edging into farce.

MR. JOHNNY: And I'll have the special fish.
LORETTA: You don't want the fish. [Nice attitude.]
MR. JOHNNY: No? [Meekness here shows he cowers before strong females.]
LORETTA: It's the oily fish tonight. Not before the plane ride. [She's got funny point of view, but she's got a point.]
MR. JOHNNY: Maybe you're right. [Dude is a doormat.]
LORETTA: Give him the manicotta, Bobo. Me, too. [She's in charge.]
BOBO: Yes, Miiss Loretta. [Everyone else also knows she's in charge.]
LORETTA (to Mr. Johnny): That will give you a base. For your stomach. You eat that oily fish, you go up in the air, halfway to Sicily you'll be green & your hands will be sweating.
MR. JOHNNY (smiles): You look after me. [Ironic. He sees this as caring, even though he's really being told what to do.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Great dialogue contains conflict without saying so.

Moonstruck (1987)
by John Patrick Shanley

Thursday, September 15, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #63 WGA Script of All Time - Jaws (1975)

[Quick Summary: A police chief, scientist & grizzled fisherman battle to protect a summer resort town that is terrorized by a gigantic white shark.]

Should you ever need to write a blood spatter scene, take note of this excellent one:


They begin a water fight, slapping at the ocean with karate-type blows, sending little explosions of water at each other.... [Ah, a nice innocent set-up.]


He hits the water, which sprays all over another youngster.


His face dripping with red rivulets. [Hooray! Tension increases without announcing 'tension increases here.']


Looks down at his hand. The water surrounding all the boys is slick with blood." [More tension. How will this resolve? Must read on.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Blood in motion should stay in motion.

Jaws (1975)
by Peter Benchley

Friday, September 9, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #64 WGA Script of All Time - Terms of Endearment (1983)

[Quick Summary: A mother-daughter relationship struggles over 3 decades to make sense of themselves, men & family.]

The best description I've seen of this movie is that it's about characters trying to connect.

The writer (James L. Brooks) sets up the situation beautifully for the mother Aurora (Shirley McClaine):  She is her own worst enemy. 

ex. Aurora desperately wants to be loved, yet she's extremely critical & difficult.  She attracts men like flies, yet not one is good enough.

To connect, Aurora has to change.  She has to modify her words & expectations. 

The genius is that it's also funny as she trips all over on her way to self-improvement.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Aurora is memorable, specifically because she's so difficult.

Terms of Endearment (1983)
by James L. Brooks

Saturday, September 3, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #65 WGA Script of All Time - Singing in the Rain (1952)

[Quick Summary: A famous silent film era actor must convince a new female singer-dancer to help out when his team has trouble transitioning into the talkie era.]

I liked the scene inside the movie theater, which cuts between action on the movie screen & action in the audience.

For once, I didn't mind the use of several "CUT TO:" in a row. 

Why? Because 1) it clarifies where to look; & 2) it reads faster than a lot of narrative.

"There is laughter from the audience and shushing.


DON (kissing Lina's hand): Imperious Princess of the night, I love you.
LINA: Oh, Pierre!
DON: I love you!
LINA: Oh, Pierre!
Don (covering her arm with kisses up to her neck): I love you - I love you - I love you - I love you - I love you - I love you - I love you - I love you - I love you -


They start to laugh.

COSMO: Did someone get paid for writing that dialogue?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When there are a lot of transitions in a scene, it's best to keep it simple.

Singing in the Rain (1952)
by Aldoph Green & Betty Comden

Thursday, August 25, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #66 WGA Script of All Time - Jerry Maguire (1996)

[Quick Summary: When a dissatisfied sports agent tries to take a higher road, he is fired & must start over with only one client.]

I'm ornery. 

When people said, "You have to read 'Jerry Maguire'!", I didn't want to.

So I'll understand if you don't want to read it either. 

But if you ever want to see great pacing & character set up, read the first 10 pages of this script.

The pacing is brisk, yet we see a completely character based snapshot of Jerry & his problems.

p.1 - In a montage, we see Jerry's sports clients. [A-ha! Jerry is a sports agent.]
p. 2 - Jerry is hard at work negotiating for a NFL client.  [He excels at his job.]
p. 3 - Jerry competes at the office with his fellow agents.  [This is a story about good guy vs. bad guys.]
p. 4 - We see Jerry losing heart because sports is now more about money. [Jerry is a decent guy.]
p. 5 -  Jerry is even more disillusioned when a severely injured client insists on playing because of a bonus.  [Our hero will face questionable decisions.]
p. 6 - Jerry writes his Manifesto & reclaims some honor.  [We're hopeful!]
p. 7 - The Manifesto gives Jerry hope.  [More hope!]
p. 8 - His fellow agents read the Manifesto & applaud him.  [Uh-oh...niggling doubts.]
p. 9 - We meet Dorothy, who is Jerry's guardian angel & antagonist.  [Hope again!]
p. 10 - Jerry confides in a fellow passenger about his shaky love life.  [This is not good.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Great pacing = My eyes never slowed down or backtracked.

Why? Because the character & his conflicts were clear and were revealed on a rolling basis.

Jerry Maguire (1996)
by Cameron Crowe

Friday, August 19, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #67 WGA Script of All Time - E.T. (1982)

[Quick Summary: A 10 yr. old boy strives to return an abandoned alien back home, but must outwit the adults who want to get their hands on it.]

It drives me batty when people say, "The tone of that script is good/bad/not there", but don't explain.  

What the hell is "tone" anyway? 

My unscientific definition: Tone is the mood of a script. 

Why is it important?  You can teach structure or dialogue, but it's harder to explain how to keep a tone/mood consistent.

However, in reading the script for "E.T.", I did find a few clues:  

- This script never violates character.  It's realistic & truthful.

GOOD - The script is realistic when the kids hide their new alien friend & take him food.
BAD - The script would've been false if the kids thought like adults & called a press conference.

- The script doesn't try to be too politically correct & lose the point of view. 

GOOD - From the kids' point of view, the adults who want E.T. are BAD people.
BAD - If the script tried to defend the adults & make everyone happy, the conflict is lost.  The tone is more like a news show than a story.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you don't violate character, you probably won't violate tone/mood either.

E.T. (1982)
by Melissa Mathison

Friday, August 12, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #68 WGA Script of All Time - Star Wars (1977)

[Quick Summary: After his home is destroyed by the evil Galactic Empire, a young farm boy leaves to learn the ways of the Force and fight with rebel forces.]

When I first saw this film as a child, I couldn't stop talking about them.

Luke & Leia? Han & Chewie? R2D2 & C3PO? They're burned into my psyche.

Best script I've ever read? Well, no.

One of the best sci-fi scripts I've ever read? Hands down yes.

Here are my top 3 reasons:

1) It lays out the rules of the world from page 1, & doesn't violate the rules.

2) It's about something universal (good vs. evil) & not just about futuristic weapons or advanced technology.

3) Luke's goal to prove himself drives the story. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even in an advanced sci-fi world, classic story structure makes it universally understood.

Star Wars (1977)
by George Lucas

Thursday, August 4, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #69 WGA Script of All Time - Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

[Quick Summary: Based on a true 1972 story, two robbers hold up a Brooklyn bank (one robber is financing his lover's sex change operation), and become the first inadvertent media darlings.]

Though the 1st half of the script was struggle to read, I was impressed by the opening lines:




This message will be a little cryptic to the movie audience on an essentially BLACK SCREEN. HOLD for a beat, then it changes: the lights flash this sign, which should explain it to everyone:

94 degrees F."

I know everything in a few sentences: 

- It's summer & hot & in the afternoon.
- We're at a bank.
- Something is about to go down at the bank.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  It's extremely smart to orient your reader to the location. 

It says, "I'm not trying to outsmart you, reader. I trust you. We're in this together."

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
by Frank Pierson

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #70 WGA Script of All Time -The African Queen (1951)

[Quick Summary: After the Germans burn down her jungle village, the only survivor, a missionary's sister, convinces a riverman to hunt down enemy's warship.]


I know I'm supposed to like this script, but I did not.  I wish I did.

It's well crafted.  There are stakes.  The dialogue flows.

Yet, it didn't move me.

Well, except for the spark between Allnutt (Bogart) & Rose (Hepburn).  Allnutt changes dramatically because of Rose.  She's a strong female who doesn't fall into overused female stereotypes. 

Guess what is her strongest tool? Her opinion of Allnutt.  It's more effective than a sword.

ex. Rose has just dumped all Allnutt's precious gin into the jungle river.  He is aghast.

ROSE: So you think it was your nasty drunkenness I mind.

A foolish, helpless gesture from Allnutt.

ALLNUTT (bewildered): Well --wot else?

ROSE: You lied to me.....You promised.

ALLNUTT (shouting): Well, I'm takin' my promise back!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To write a strong female character, make her a woman to be reckoned with.

The African Queen (1951)
by James Agee, John Huston & Peter Viertel

Monday, July 18, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #71 WGA Script of All Time - Lion in Winter (1968)

[Quick Summary: King Henry II & his estranged wife Eleanor of Acquitaine battle over which son will succeed to the throne: his pick (weak teenager John), her pick (military Richard), or no one's pick (Geoffrey).]

Eleanor of Acquitaine has some @_#$)(*%&!! balls.

She's been imprisoned for 10 yrs., her husband has replaced her with a  mistress, she has weak sons, & her heart still aches for Henry.

Yet she is conniving & EXTREME in getting her son Richard on the throne. 

The best two moments in the script are when the stakes rise to unbelievably tense heights:

- After 10 yrs. in prison, Henry promises her freedom - if he gets the Acquitaine in exchange.  Unfortunately, the transfer would 100% ensure that Richard will not be king.  Will she give up her freedom for her son's throne (her goal)?

- Henry knocks her for a loop when he demands an annulment so he can marry his mistress, French princess Alais (who is actually intended as a wife for Richard). 

This shatters her.  Above all else, she prizes being important to Henry.  If he truly wants to cut ties with her, how will Eleanor deal with being unimportant to him?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Stakes rise because the character is about to lose something of great importance.

Knowing your character's trigger points is extremely helpful.

Lion in Winter (1968)
by James Goldman (older brother of William Goldman)

Friday, July 15, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #72 WGA Script of All Time - Thelma & Louise (1991)

[Quick Summary: When two female best friends go on a road trip, Thelma is almost raped by a stranger, & Louise shoots him, causing them to flee toward Mexico, with a trail of police on their tail.]

Louise has a cloud that hangs over her.

The audience doesn't know where it comes from until late into the film, but we SEE it underneath her actions.

The writer shows her mastery of subtext by showing, not telling, that Louise is a control freak & has trouble trusting any man. 

ex. Harlan laughs. Thelma laughs, too, but doesn't really get the joke. Louise does not laugh.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is trusting your reader.

Giving just enough info, but not treating them like they can''t put two and two together.

Thelma & Louise (1991)
by Callie Khouri

Friday, July 8, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #73 WGA Script of All Time - Amadeus (1984)

[Quick Summary: In an insane asylum, Antonio Salieri recalls how he manipulated everything in his power so that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cannot succeed - but fails.]

Salieri is a damned man.

He's a vindictive guy, consumed by jealousy, powerful, rich, & ...oh yeah, he's the protagonist.

How did the writer, Peter Shaffer, make the bad guy someone the audience actually sympathizes with? 

One reason is that it is easy to relate to Salieri

- He shows (NOT TELLS) his jealousy. 
- He wants to be the best composer (his goal), but Mozart is better.
- He is prideful (a universal flaw) which he struggles with.

Another reason is that Mozart is a tough antagonist.

Watch how the script uses music as an extension of Mozart...Mozart is pushing Salieri even though Mozart isn't in the room.

ex. "[Salieri] walks around and around his salon, reading the pages [Mozart's work] and dropping them on the floor when he is done with them. [This is the action we see on screen.]

We see his agonized and wondering face: he shudders as if in a rough and tumbling sea; he experiences the point where beauty and great pain coalesce.... [This is the reaction shot to the music, i.e., his enemy Mozart.]

Finally we hear the tremendous Qui Tollis from the Mass in C Minor. It seems to break over him like a wave and, unable to bear any more of it, he slams the portfolio shut. [Salieri & Mozart have battled.]

Instantly the music breaks off, reverberating in his head. [The stakes have risen. Salieri knows he's lost to Mozart & is shaken.]

He stands shaking, staring wildly. Constanze [Mozart's wife] gets up, perplexed.

CONSTANZE: Is it no good?
A pause.
SALIERI: It is miraculous."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: A bad guy is sympathetic if he's flawed & human.

Amadeus (1984)
by Peter Shaffer

Friday, July 1, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #74 WGA Script of All Time - Being John Malkovich (1999)

[Quick Summary: A puppeteer begins work at a short, rather hum-drum office, and discovers a portal directly into actor John Malkovich's head.]

The reason why Charlie Kaufman is on this danged list three times is because he writes stuff like this:


Lotte drives. Craig looks out the window. Both are silent.

LOTTE (finally): Is the trial date set?
CRAIG: May 11th.

More silence.

LOTTE: Why'd you do it, Craig?
CRAIG: I'm a puppeteer.

In that small scene, the audience knows who Craig is. 

He's a guy who takes risks, lives on the edge, & connects with others through a weird passion for puppeteering. 
He's got a wife who isn't on the same wavelength.
He's kind of crazy, but not insane. 
He's going to get in a lot of trouble (& drive the action) because he has this pent up need to express himself, & makes unwise decisions.

So why do we root for Craig? And, more importantly, how did Charlie Kaufman do that?

Kaufman wrote Craig as a man doggedly pursuing a hope & a longing to connect. 

Craig may make unwise decisions, & fail, & encounter unbelievable things, but he never has a false moment.  And that is why Craig is universally understood.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I don't have to like the character, or his decisions or actions, but I DO have to understand him.

Being John Malkovich (1999)
by Charlie Kaufman

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #75 WGA Script of All Time - High Noon (1952)

[Quick Summary: When news breaks that a feared felon is returning to town, the recently married Marshal Doane puts his future on hold to scrounge up a volunteer posse, but no one will step up.]

What are my biggest pet peeves?

1) Chase/fight/action scenes that are emotional wastelands.  (AUUGH!)
2) On the nose dialogue. (AUUUUUUUGH!)

Luckily, "High Noon" has:

1) Chase/fight/action scenes loaded with emotion.
2) Dialogue that is real. (Not caricatured with gunslinger sayings.)

ex. "Doane watches the Judge make his saddlebags and books secure. Mettrick gives the straps a final tug, hesitates, then turns to face Doan.

[Mettrick isn't just leaving physically. He's abandoning his friend who is in desperate need.]

METTRICK: Goodbye, Will...
DOANE (flatly): Goodbye.

[Subtexted. What else do you say to someone who is about to send you to the dogs?]

Mettrick is horribly ashamed. Doane tries to hid his own sick, still somewhat dazed shock and disappointment.

[These reaction shots to the other character give the reader a sense of uneasy, roiling emotions.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Emotion should show through the action.

And the Western flavored dialogue was based more in attitude in than because of any particular words.

High Noon (1952)
by Carl Foreman, based on a story by John M. Cunningham

Friday, June 17, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #76 WGA Script of All Time - Raging Bull (1980)

[Quick Summary: An insecure, jealous boxer battles his way to success in the ring, but his personal life crumbles.]

The first real screenwriting advice I received was, "Never use flashbacks. It's cheating."

After covering many, many scripts, I want to amend it: “Never use flashbacks UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING. OTHERWISE, it’s cheating.”

If you’re using flashbacks to insert needless back story, it’s cheating.

If you’re using flashbacks to make a very specific point, it could be very effective.

In “Raging Bull”, the writer jumps between 1964 (an overweight, out-of-shape Jake LaMotta), and 1956-1958 (Jake in his prime) for a specific reason. 

The script is about regret and the inability to trust. 

What’s the best way to show this?  Juxtapose the present with all his past mistakes. 

Ex. In 1964, Jake is full of remorse that he hit and blamed his only trusted ally, his brother Joey in 1951. 

The script flashes back to 1951.  Jake is lost without Joey, and has lost the will to fight.  He practically hands over the middleweight crown to nemesis Sugar Ray Leonard.

In 1964, Jake admits he was wrong. The flashback emphasizes that he really didn't know why he overreacted then.  The juxtaposition shows Jake still does not why now.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Flashbacks are useful if use sparingly and with a defined purpose.

Raging Bull (1980)
by Paul Schrader

Friday, June 10, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #77 WGA Script of All Time - Adaption (2002)

[Quick Summary: A neurotic screenwriter puts himself into his adaption of the book, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, but when he meets the author in real life, it's nothing like he expects.]

Ok, we know Charlie Kaufman can write.

Ok, not just write, he's got a unique tone & voice, & point of view.

Ok, not just write with a unique tone, voice, & point of view, he's bloody imaginative.

This script is on the list because it does something only found in a Kaufman script. 

First, there are several stories:

A - Charlie is a depressed, woman obsessed screenwriter. His twin brother Donald wants to be a screenwriter, takes a McKee weekend course, & sells a million dollar screenplay. 

B- The script shows scenes from the book "The Orchid Thief".  Charlie falls for Susan Orlean in the book.

C - Charlie meets Susan Orlean in real life. She's not exactly like she is in the book... & she kidnaps him.

Second, the script flows from one story to the next, into fantasies & the past & back to reality, AND I AM NEVER LOST. 

I need to emphasize how extraordinarily RARE RARE RARE this feat is.

Yes, he uses subtitles. Yes, he has clear sluglines.

But what's really the secret? The flow is uncomplicated & clear.

ex. Scene 1 - In the past, a teenage Charlie reads a book in his room. Out the window, he sees Donald talking to two girls. Donald walks away, happy. The girls make fun of Donald behind his back.

Scene 2 - In the present, "Kaufman stares at a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter."

Scene 3 - The script jumps to a swamp scene in the book.

Scene 1 to 2: There's no other narrative, but it's clear to the reader that Charlie is staring at the paper & is reliving that moment of embarrassment for his brother. 

Scene 2 to 3: Then the script moves to what Charlie is if he moved away from the embarrassing memory.  It's clear he's moved on, but there's no unnecessary "Charlie picks up The Orchid Thief..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You can take the reader anywhere, just as long as they can follow your sequence with some sort of logic.

Adaption (2002)
by Charlie Kaufman

Friday, June 3, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #78 WGA Script of All Time - Rocky (1976)

[Quick Summary: A small time boxer gets the chance of a lifetime to fight the reigning Champ.]

"Rocky" surprised me.  It's a simple, clean script.

Rocky has a clear goal. He's got flaws to overcome.  He's got a strong antagonist that pushes him to arc. There are subplots that support Rocky's journey.

How hard is it to write a simple, clean script with a character that sticks to his goal and overcomes his flaw?


Most of the specs I see are overwritten (ex. overlapping description in both the dialogue and narrative) or underwritten (ex. jumps of logic that make it hard to follow). 

It's tough to get the balance just right such as "Rocky".

So what's a solution?  Writing lots of scripts. Reading lots of scripts.

How many is "lots of scripts"? One more than you have written or read.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: "Rocky" works because it's simple, and clean.  Very hard to do.

Rocky (1976)
By Sylvester Stallone

Friday, May 27, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #79 WGA Script of All Time - The Producers (1968)

[Quick Summary: Con-man producer Max Bialystock convinces timid accountant Leo Bloom to put on a sure-fire flop on Broadway and thus profit from the loss.]

What I love about this script is how the audience literally sees Leo Bloom bloom. 

(You think his last name is accidental? Think again.)

Leo is a nervous, fearful, blanket-carrying accountant. But because bold Max pushes him, Leo learns to face his fears.

The brilliance of the script is that we SEE the small changes in Leo, i.e., we SEE his character arc.

Here's a good example of one of these small changes:

ex. Max persuades Leo to ditch work & have lunch at Coney Island.  Leo hasn't been there since he was a kid.

Leo is loosening up. He chooses a daring pistachio as his fourth ice cream cone.

MAX: Well, Leo, are you having a good time?
LEO: I don't know. I think so. I feel very strange.
MAX: Maybe you're happy.
LEO: Yes. That's it. Happy. Well, whatta ya think of that. Happy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Change happens in increments, not leaps.

So your character needs to SHOW change in increments, not leaps.

The Producers (1968)
by Mel Brooks

Sunday, May 22, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #80 WGA Script of All Time - Witness (1985)

[Quick Summary: After a young Amish boy witnesses a cop being murdered in the big city, an Internal Affairs cop takes the boy and his mother back to the Amish to protect them from a killer.]

When I read spec scripts, I see many writers (including myself) fall into the trap of a lousy protagonist introduction.

Here's a typical example:

JOHN DOE, 22, a hip hop wannabe, wears run down sneakers and a ripped t-shirt.  He's 6'2", handsome with brown hair and blue eyes.

"But wait!" you say. "What's so bad about that?"

Let me list the ways:

1) I know very little about John's mental state.  Yeah, you heard me. Is he worried? Happy?

2) I expect every word to be important. Is his height going to pay off later? Does his eye color change later? If not, then realize right now: I WILL FORGET YOU WROTE THIS.

3) This is a static description. There is no movement.

Here's the intro of John Book in "Witness".  Pay attention.

"The diffused shape of faces behind the frosted glass of the mens' [sic] room door, which is pushed open to reveal, JOHN BOOK, who comes striding through to be momentarily lost in the crowd of police, reporters and others. He is about 40, with a rangy, athletic body."

OK, this is a long intro, but it got me interested.

1) I know that John Book is a no-nonsense guy just by his walk. He's focused, on a mission.

2) Brevity & conciseness here. He's 40, i.e., he's not a rookie. He's rangy & athletic, i.e., he's got some ability to protect & defend.

3) He's in motion.  My mind's eye tracks John as he travels out of the men's room, which was the crime scene. What was he doing in there?  Is he a good guy? Bad guy? I want to know more.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: An introduction should keep the reader's eye moving, & only relay what is absolutely necessary (if in doubt, leave it out).

Witness (1985)
by Earl W. Wallace & William Kelley

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #81 WGA Script of All Time - Being There (1979)

[Quick Summary: A simple gardener is oblivious when his simple words about gardening are misinterpreted as financial advice, and he becomes overnight sensation in Washington, D.C.]

I was going to wax eloquent about the use of misinterpretation in this script (it's at a genius level).

But if you're a serious comedy writer, you'll study the script yourself.

I want to talk about economy of the writing.  It's also stellar. 

Watch closely:


The President & First Lady are very attentive.....

BURNS (on TV): Do you feel that we have a 'very good gardener' in office at this time, Mr. Gardiner?

PRESIDENT: ....That bastard...

What did the writers leave out? 

- They didn't need to explain the couple is watching tv.
- They didn't need to include direction like INTERCUT BETWEEN TV AND ROOM (it's self-explanatory).
- They didn't need a reaction shot.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You can always tell when writers know what they're doing.  It's always "less is more".

Being There (1979)
by Jerzy Kosinski & Robert C. Jones
(From the novel by Jerzy Kosinski)

Friday, May 13, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #82 WGA Script of All Time - Cool Hand Luke (1967)

[Quick Summary: A too-smart-for-his-own-good prisoner doesn't fit into a rural prison.]

Certain spec scripts (ex. torture porn, child abuse, rape) are painful to read.

Yet I have read them, & managed not to be scarred for life.

So why was the excellent Cool Hand Luke nearly too painful for me to read?

Because Luke keeps getting caught escaping prison. With each attempt, the guards crushes, demoralizes, pulverizes our hero...

...& we see a man losing hope.

A man without hope is scarier & uglier than blood & guts could ever be.

Don't believe me?  Read p. 131 when Luke grovels for mercy.

The writers definitely deserve their Oscar nomination for crafting emotion on the page. The key is that they never went easy on their protagonist (something I see in too many spec scripts today).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Luke's escapes were physical manifestations of his emotional state.

The more desperate he felt, the bolder his actions.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
by Frank Pierson & Hal Dresner

Monday, May 9, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #85 WGA Script of All Time - La Grande Illusion (1937)

[Crap I skipped this script by mistake. My apologies.]

[Quick Summary: At the end of WWI, a group of French officers try to escape a German POW camp.]

I know this is a classic, but I had a hard time getting into the story.

This really isn't a war film.  It's more about the relationships between men despite their nationalities, & the aristocratic soldier vs. modern warfare.

Why didn't I like it?

I guess because I found it hard to connect, except for a few small moments.

ex. When Marechal the mechanic escapes, he knocks on the home of single mother Elsa & asks for shelter. It's realistic how touch-&-go that situation could be, but he earns her trust.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes films go over my head. And that's ok.

La Grande Illusion
by Jean Renoir & Charles Spaak
Masterworks of the French Cinema, edited by John Weightman (1974)

Friday, May 6, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #83 WGA Script of All Time - Rear Window (1954)

[Quick Summary: A recuperating photographer is suspicious of a neighbor whose wife has conveniently "gone on vacation."]

Bad news: This is a loooong, dense 160 pg. script.  (Yeah, yeah, I know this is typical of Hitchcock scripts.)

Good news: It does transitions well.

(This is something that only serious writers study. Everyone else thinks transitions "just happen.")

ex. Jeff & Lisa argue.  Jeff can't convince her that the salesman/neighbor in the far building is sinister. 
Finally Jeff begins to concede maybe he's imagining things & makes a joke to Lisa. He waits for her response.

HERE'S THE TRANSITION: The script gives a VISUAL response instead of a verbal one. We see:

-  Lisa in shock
-  Lisa looking at the far building where the salesman is packing a big trunk to leave
-  Lisa changed by what she sees (We know she believes Jeff now)

Then she turns to Jeff & asks: "Tell me everything..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is a great transition because it does several things at once:

1) It shows us how Lisa changed her mind AND
2) It shows us the salesman is moving fast to leave (ticking clock) AND
3) It shows us via visuals (instead of dialogue) that Lisa is committed to the cause

Not bad, eh?

Rear Window (1954)
by John Michael Hayes

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #84 WGA Script of All Time - The Princess Bride (1987)

[Quick Summary: A mysterious Man in Black sets out with two unlikely sidekicks to rescue a kidnapped Princess from the dastardly Prince Humperdink.]

This week, I covered an adventure script. 

Unfortunately, something was missing.  But what was it?

When I read "The Princess Bride", I realized that the missing element in the previous script was tension/jeopardy that moves the story forward. 

ex. Inigo Montoya, the swordsman, stands at the edge of the high Cliffs.  He looks down below at the Man in Black who is climbing up. Boooorrring...

...except both parties are offended the other is taking so long.

INIGO: I don't suppose you could speed things up.

MAN IN BLACK (with some heat): If you're so anxious to hurry things, you could lower a rope or a tree branch or find some useful thing to do.

That's funny. And tense because:

#1 There's jeopardy - The Man In Black is literally hanging in the balance.
#2 There's tension - Are you friend or foe?
#3 The resolution of #1 & #2 adds more brick to the story road.

Here, Inigo & the Man in Black fight, then become allies, which advances the plot.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Scripts often miss #3. 

That was the problem with the adventure script.  The tension was about side characters or unimportant details. It didn't add to the main story.

Princess Bride (1987)
by William Goldman

Friday, April 22, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #86 WGA Script of All Time - Harold & Maude (1971)

[Quick Summary: When an extremely death obsessed young man meets an even more extreme 79 yr. old woman, he is transformed by her zest for life.]
A writer had asked for examples of a good midpoint turn & I was all out of 'em.

So I lucked out that "Harold & Maude" was this week's script-o-the-week. It's got a great midpoint!

Midpoint can be defined as:  "a setback, reversal or turning point which sends the character in a new direction, pushes the plot into a higher gear or raises the character's commitment to another level." (New School Screenwriting Curriculum Glossary)

Here, the script shows at the midpoint how much Harold has changed because of Maude.

This is the moment we finally see Harold has reversed his downward spiral. 

1st - The writer sets the tone in an amusing narrative.

ex. "Partly because of the pot, but mostly because he has found a friend, Harold opens up for the first time in his life."

2nd - The writer gives Harold a long, bang up speech that actors would kill to deliver.

ex. "I decided then I enjoyed being dead."

3rd - Maude does the unexpected - she reacts with acceptance & then gives him a swift kick in the pants.

ex. "I understand. A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not really dead. They're just backing away from life....(leading a cheer) Give me a "L"..."I".."V"..."E" LIVE!!!"

4th - Because Harold trusts Maude is looking out for his happiness, he reacts with good cheer. This is a markedly different response than what he gave his controlling Mother.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Harold is a different man at the midpoint. He's gone from morose to happy because of the antagonist, Maude.

The stakes are higher now. Can he sustain this happiness?

Harold & Maude (1971)
by Colin Higgins

Thursday, April 21, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: Logline vs. Script

Please make your script:

1) match your logline, &
2) be as good as (or better than) your logline.

I've become self-protective & jaded. 

I've read too many loglines (like I did today), only to be crushed when the script doesn't match (disappointment doesn't even describe it).

Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease do this for me?

I want to trust I'm in good hands.

But if your logline overdelivers & your script underdelivers, I will not trust you to deliver what you've promised. 

That is all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #87 WGA Script of All Time - 8 1/2 (1963)

[Quick Summary: A filmmaker is having a block, & his thoughts overlap fantasy & memories.]

I know this is a celebrated film.

I'd heard that it can be confusing to people on a first read/viewing.  I scoffed that I'd be "one of those people." 

I stand before you, chagrined, & "one of those people."

I could swallow that it's terribly long at 264 pgs.  I could've dealt with the non-traditional format.  I would've even been ok with slipping into fantasy & memories w/o warning.

My biggest issue was that I simply could not follow the storyline. I had no idea what the main character, Guido, wanted nor what I was supposed to experience besides confusion.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I wish I knew why this script is #87 on the WGA list.  Could anyone help me understand this script better?

8 1/2 (1963)
by Federico Fellini

Friday, April 8, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #88 WGA Script of All Time - Field of Dreams (1989)

[Quick Summary: An Iowa farmer is led by a Voice to build a baseball field in his corn field & to go find a reclusive writer, all in the face of skepticism & potential financial ruin.]

Yeah, I cried.

I banked them for as long as I could, but when Ray says in awe, "I am pitching to Shoeless Joe Jackson", I lost it. 

This script doesn't read like a clunky adaption for two reasons:

1) No Cul de Sacs - I heard the director/writer say in an interview that he first eliminated all the cul de sacs, i.e., the things that didn't push the plot forward. 

I know from covering many scripts that it's such a temptation to keep cool subplots in.

ex. The writer had to drop the identical twin brother storyline from the book because it distracted from Ray's development.

2) Streamline to Focus - The script is a moving bullet from beginning to end because it is always clear what Ray is facing, what his motive is, & what inner struggle he's trying to overcome.  Any other distractions were stricken.

ex.  The writer changed the character of J.D. Salinger to a made up writer b/c mixing fictional and non-fictional people didn't make it real enough on-screen.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Nothing should hamper the story arc pushing forward.

I saw an interview of the book's author who said that he cried when he read the script.  He was moved by a work based on his own book - now that is a great adaption!

Field of Dreams (1989)
by Phil Alden Robinson

Thursday, March 31, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #89 WGA Script of All Time - Forrest Gump (1994)

[Quick Summary: A good natured, but not so intelligent man participates in many important historical events of the 20th Century, but all he longs for is his childhood friend Jenny.]

What do you do when a string of writers before you can't crack an adaption?

If you were Eric Roth writing Forrest Gump, you figure out that the key was tone. 

Tone is a dashed difficult thing to define.  I'm not sure I can either, but in this script, it's the "wink & a nod".

Forrest is always in the middle of history making events & meeting famous people, but he never realizes it...but the AUDIENCE knows.

ex. Forrest runs along a river, & sees a civil rights march.  Police let loose their dogs, who grew up with Forrest.  The dogs are about to attack the marchers, but Forrest calls them to go home.  Forrest apologizes to Martin Luther King, Jr. for the interruption.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The tone is light & hopeful, though the events are often heavy.  This is Forrest Gump in a nutshell & makes you want to see him succeed.

(BTW, Robert Zemeckis, the director, said he kept turning the pages because he couldn't stop wondering what would happen next to Forrest.)

Forrest Gump (1994)
by Eric Roth

Friday, March 25, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #90 WGA Script of All Time - Sideways (2004)

[Quick Summary: Depressed school teacher-writer and his woman-obsessed best friend drive through California wine country for one last hurrah before the latter's wedding day.]

Holy crap, this script was a definite first.

It was the first script that I didn't see the words on the page, but as a series of moving images, like a picture book. When I finished and blinked, I wondered where the film went.

Then I blinked. I had been reading?

What this script does better than any I've seen is that it trusts the reader to fill in the details.

ex. "The boys turn to see Phyllis now dolled up in thick make-up and a PANTSUIT. Her eyebrows are painted & cock-eyed. Overall she looks much worse than before."

I love how the script gives you exactly what you need to know, & lets you imagine the rest.

You only need to know Phyllis has changed clothes, but not the actual color, shape, etc.

You need to know she's overdone her face, but only that it's "much worse than before."

The writers don't micro-manage, & actually draw the audience in as a co-conspirator.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: These writers are specific about the universal, & thus leaves the details alone.

No wonder I know Phyllis - I've met her type many times before.

Sideways (2004)
by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor

Friday, March 18, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #91 WGA Script of All Time - The Verdict (1982)

[Quick Summary: When an alcoholic lawyer gets an "easy" personal injury case that is ready to be settled, he does the unthinkable & takes it to trial.]

Holy freaking cow.  Why have I not read more David Mamet?

He's known for his dialogue, but this script's subtext blew my mind.

On the surface, this is about a washed up lawyer who has only one, rather weak case.

Below the surface, Roger Ebert writes:

"Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman, seem to be going for something more; "The Verdict" is more a character study than a thriller, and the buried suspense in this movie is more about Galvin's own life than about his latest case."

How does Mamet do it? 

First, the trajectory of the case parallels Galvin's (the main character) personal recovery.

Second, when Galvin battles setbacks on the case, it's really about his own setbacks.

ex.  Early on, we learn that Galvin was a big firm lawyer who was accused of jury tampering on a case. He lost everything - wife, job, respect, etc. 

He gets now gets Deborah Ann's case.  She is in a coma now because she received the wrong anesthetic during delivery. 

Around p. 27, the doctors' lawyer offers Galvin a generous settlement of $210k...and Galvin refuses.  He wants the world to know the truth of what happened. 

But why?  Wouldn't it be better just to settle?

We only discover Galvin's reasoning around p. 53: He was also an innocent victim in the jury tampering case.  When he seeks justice for innocent Deborah Ann, he is also settling the score for his own innocent self.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've never seen subtext that is felt rather than seen.  The craft was the sublime b/c everything was clear, but nothing was heavy handed or remotely on the nose.

The Verdict (1982)
by David Mamet

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #93 WGA Script of All Time - Do the Right Thing (1989)

[Sorry - I read the last script out of order. The numbering has been corrected.]

[Quick Summary: During the hottest day in Brooklyn, tensions snap between a local Italian pizzeria owner & the surrounding black neighborhood.]

This isn't a perfect script because it takes awhile to get going.

However, Spike Lee conveys his distinct voice very well.  He does not get up on a soapbox, but there's a definite message. 

I was most keen on how he creates a crucible. 

ex. Mookie (played by Spike Lee) works for Sal, who owns the only pizza joint in a mostly black neighborhood. 

A customer, Radio Raheem gets upset at Sal for not posting any pictures of African-American heroes.  Raheem starts a protest against Sal's & the neighbors take his side. 

Mookie is torn between Sal, who has been good to him, & the neighbors, who act out of a long simmering injustice. 

The key to the crucible is that Mookie has no way out.  He must choose, & will be damned whichever way he chooses.   

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I find a crucible interesting because it forces a character to make a decision.

If there are too many ways out, it's not a crucible.

Do the Right Thing (1989)
by Spike Lee

Thursday, March 3, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #92 WGA Script of All Time - Psycho (1960)

[Quick Summary: When a young woman absconds with her boss' client's money, she ends up at the Bates' motel, where it's always the wrong place & wrong time.]

I do not like horror nor creepy, & have never read nor seen the whole Psycho.

So how surprised am I that this is the best horror script I've read to date? Very.

This is an extremely fast read (even at 133 pgs.) & breaks all kinds of rules.  ex. The protagonist, dies about 1/3 into the story & is replaced by another one (Norman Bates).

But Psycho is heads & tails above all other horror scripts because it structures the fear so well.

Every level pushes the character off a ledge (cliffhangers = high vertical suspense), & can only be answered by the next level (this increases pace = fast horizontal speed).

ex. LEVEL 1 - The writer establishes empathy for Marion & sends her to the Bates motel. This sets up an unresolved question: Why did she have to die?  We liked her & this is disturbing!

LEVEL 2 - Then the writer sends a private eye to the motel & he dies.  The fear rises to a panic: Doesn't anyone notice?  Who will stop these deaths?!

LEVEL 3 - So when Marion's sister & Marion's boyfriend come to investigate, the fear is at an all time high.  Don't split up! Why are you two splitting up? You know there are crazy Bates who've killed twice!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The genius of Psycho is that we expect Marion to live, but she doesn't...& the script doesn't die, but speeds up.

Psycho (1960)
by Joseph Stefano

Friday, February 25, 2011

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Francis Ford Coppola & Hope

On days I find it hard to believe I'm just one script away from a career, I think about the story behind Patton.

Francis Ford Coppola was hired to write "Patton," but there was a disagreement about the now iconic opening. He was replaced by another writer.

Time passes. Just as Coppola is about to be fired again from "The Godfather," "Patton" is up for an Academy Award, & Coppola wins for best screenplay!

Coppola has said that if he hadn't won for "Patton", it's likely he would've been fired from "The Godfather."

This gives me great hope that things work out the way they should.

TODAY'S NUGGET: #94 WGA Script of All Time - Patton (1970)

[Quick Summary: This film depicts the war career of WWII General George S. Patton, a controversial, but wily leader of the US Army.]

I liked reading this script because it's a look at Coppola's writing before "The Godfather."

Patton was larger than life, & Coppola does not shy away from showing all of Patton, including the less admirable traits.

However, I admit that if he pitched it to me in 1969, I might've been one of his many doubters.

Why? In reading the script, I wasn't swept away. Yes, I was impressed at Patton's character traits, the sweep of what he accomplished, his faults.

But I didn't connect with Patton's story on the page and I'm one of those people who enjoy biopics. What went wrong?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm still flummoxed. I should've connected, but didn't.

Patton (1970)
by Francis Ford Coppola & Edmund North

Friday, February 18, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #95 WGA Script of All Time - Hannah & Her Sisters (1986)

[Quick Summary: Between two Thanksgivings, Hannah, her two sisters & their significant others face a myriad life experiences, told in a vignette style.]

After reading this script, I'm once again glad I've had no excuse to avoid it.

[WHINY ME: It sounds like a boring read.
MATURE ME: Too bad, it's on the list.
WHINY ME: Who made them the list king?
MATURE ME: Because they're the ones who READ the scripts.]

I'll admit that it's long (207 pgs).  It has several story lines that sometimes wander.  It's quintessential Woody Allen, & thus it's not everyone's cup of tea.

But what really impressed me is that Woody Allen wrote characters who are very, very clear what they want...even if they don't know what they want.

ex. Jewish Mickey (Woody Allen) might/probably doesn't have a fatal tumor/benign nothing.  But since he could be dying, his thoughts turn to God for the first time in years.  He wants to believe in something, & visits a Catholic priest to possibly convert, then a Hare Krishna leader for answers. 

Throughout the script, Mickey wonders what life is worth living for & doesn't have an  answer, BUT he's doggedly determined to find it...and in the end, he does.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Showing WHY a character wants something is as important as showing WHAT he wants.

Hannah & Her Sisters (1986)
by Woody Allen

Friday, February 11, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #96 WGA Script of All Time - The Hustler (1961)

[Quick Summary: To win against the great Minnesota Fats, Eddie, a talented (but temper prone) pool shark, must learn what 'character' is.]

I inhaled at "FADE IN" & only exhaled at "THE END." 

It seemed as if I'd read one continuous story, & I didn't notice any transitions, sluglines, or breaks. 

My heart broke for these characters. 

I suppose it's because:

1) they're so flawed & a bit raw, &
2) when they jumped an obstacle, there was a bigger one waiting.

ex. When Eddie takes care of Sarah, it's the first step beyond his self-centeredness.  They bond, but soon he gets a chance to compete in another town & must leave her.  She never asks him to stay...just that "I made you up, like everything else....I wanted you to be real."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Character arcs thrive on showing flaws, overcoming obstacles, then making even bigger decisions.

The Hustler (1961)
by Sidney Carroll & Robert Rossen

Friday, February 4, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #97 WGA Script of All Time - The Searchers (1956)

[Quick Summary: A Civil War vet goes searching for his niece who was kidnapped by Indians.]

This is an uncomfortable script.


- John Wayne plays an unrepentant racist.
- This isn't my genre of choice.
- This story happens over several years.
- John Wayne doesn't come face to face with his antagonist Scar until the climax.

But despite my misgivings, I was determined to figure out why this film is at the top of many critics' lists.

And I discovered that the script drives to the end with an energy & focus because the main character Ethan (John Wayne) is single minded.

ex. He makes difficult, unpopular decisions, like abandoning Martin at the homestead.  But each one gets him closer to his goal. 

ex. He hangs on to his goal like a bulldog.  He is never far from his pursuit.

ex. The antagonist is always present (even if not physically present) because the protagonist continually plots against the antagonist at all times.  

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The script is blunt, to the point, & decisive. 

This film endures because the Ethan character is unforgettable. 

Right or wrong, you're never in doubt who & what Ethan is, where he is going, what he is doing.

The Searchers (1956)
by Frank Nugent

Monday, January 31, 2011


In response to a reader's question re: what type of scripts are best now, the 2010 Spec Market Roundup reports the top 3 genres are:

Comedy - 27%
Thriller - 27%
Action/Adventure - 26%

YOU: So I should ONLY write to the market?
ME: No.

YOU: Then I should ONLY write my passion.
ME: No.

YOU: Then what the hell should I write?
ME: A passion-filled story that is informed by the market.

YOU: Isn't that the same thing?
ME: No.

ex. In "The Town," Ben Affleck tried to see if he could "get a drama to succeed more commercially by introducing genre elements... Heist elements wrapped around a drama."

If your passion is drama, first pack the core full of high dramatic EMOTION. Then step back & see if you can add elements of action. Or maybe some comedic moments.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't let "conventional wisdom" that drama is dead limit you.

But don't ignore it. Work around/over/with it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #98 WGA Script of All Time - Grapes of Wrath (1940)

[Quick Summary: A poor Oklahoma family loses their farm during the Depression and treks to California in hope of finding work.]

I don't know much about Steinbeck. 

Heck, I'm far from a literary genius, so I'll be honest: I just didn't care for this script.

However, I did admire the details that make you feel the Depression up close & personal.  You begin to worry about your empty belly. You'd get upset too if you couldn't feed your family on 2 1/2 cents an hour. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Too many details can create a wall between you & the reader. 

The right ones can win over a skeptic.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
by Nunnally Johnson

Friday, January 21, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #99 WGA Script of All Time - The Wild Bunch (1969)

[Quick Summary: Aging outlaws try one last run as the code of the Old West crumbles, & a new impersonal era begins.]

This was a head scratcher.

I didn't get the senseless killings. Nor connected with characters who betrayed each other.  And maybe that was the point.

So why does Roger Ebert call this:

- "one of the most controversial films of its time--praised and condemned with equal vehemence" AND
- "one of the great defining moments of modern movies"?

I think it was the first of its kind.

The first to show that much violence.

The first to cause that violent of a reaction (whether you agree with the film or not, it does stir up discussion).

In the confusing age of the 1970s Vietnam War, it might actually have been a wistful longing for an Old West with a code.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I don't understand all the scripts on this list.

I probably would've passed if I were reading this today.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
by Walon Green & Sam Peckinpah

Friday, January 14, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: #100 WGA Script of All Time - Memento (2000)

[Quick Summary: A man who has lost his short term memory tattoos clues on his body, & wakes up each morning hoping to solve the mystery of who killed his wife.]

Um, this script is gut-wrenchingly raw.  For that reason, I found it hard to read. 

Yet I powered through because:

1) It's told backwards, which is risky, & I wanted to see how it's done; and

2) On p.3, Leonard (the lead) reminds himself to kill Teddy (who seems to be a friend, but maybe not). I couldn't shake the need to resolve this conflict. 

For the rest of the script, this conflict builds & builds.  I had to finish the script to find out what Teddy did to Leonard.

I can't say I understand Leonard 100%, but I did see his reasoning & that was satisfying.

WHAT I LEARNED:  To build conflict, hand out bigger & bigger pieces of the puzzle.

Especially give glimpses of WHY a character makes the decisions he does. 

Memento (2000)
by Christopher Nolan
Based on the short story, "Memory Mori," by Jonathan Nolan

Friday, January 7, 2011

TODAY’S NUGGET: #101 WGA Script of All Time – Notorious (1946)

[Quick Summary:  Daughter of a convicted traitor reluctantly goes to Rio to infiltrate a group of her father’s friends, & falls for the recruiter who doesn’t trust her.]

Someone (me) reads your story. 

Someone (me again) suspects the story doesn’t build suspense enough.

Someone (me, now grouchy) struggles to explain to you the building blocks of suspense.  

Enter “Notorious” and Hitchcock.  (Someone (me) is relieved.)

The key to suspense is that she must always be at a fork in the road. 

Ex. Alicia must seduce Sebastian (a bad guy & the man who wants her), but she’s in love with Agent Devlin (the man who has put her with Sebastian). 

How to keep her at a fork in the road:

1 – Increase stakes by increasing the consequences.

Alicia can only access the secret room if she marries Sebastian.  Will she marry him and doom herself to a life without Devlin?

2 –The love triangle keeps see-sawing back & forth, so we’re never sure who’s won.

Alicia & Devlin clearly have chemistry (Devlin wins). Alicia must placate Sebastian (Sebastian wins).  Alicia longs for Devlin (Devlin wins).

3- Every decision seems to extinguish conflict, but actually creates two more.

Alicia steals keys to the secret room & takes Devlin there.  When Sebastian spots them, Devlin kisses her deliberately to distract him. Now Sebastian is furious at Alicia, & her heart breaks even more over Devlin.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED:  If it’s done right, the suspense arc should  not end at a fork. Suspense forks and forks and forks again.

Notorious (1946)
by Ben Hecht

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Am Lazy, i.e., Goal for 2011

Reading scripts is like a diet.

I don't want those deep mysterious greens, and scary orange looking vegetables.  But they're good for me.

I get lazy. I try to survive without the discipline.

And that's how I end up uninspired, i.e., in the safe zone.

I look back at November when I was on a crazy schedule of one script (plus analysis for this blog) per day. 

I loved it. I hated it. I went places I'd rather not go.

But for the first time, I understood why these films were "classic," "unforgettable," and "stirring."

So here's my goal for 2011: To read the remaining 71 scripts on the WGA's Top 101 Scripts of All Time. 

This breaks down to one a week, sometimes two.  I'll start with #101 Notorious and work backwards.  Postings will be on Fridays (& the occasional Tuesdays).

Won't you join me?  It's dashed lonely reading all alone.
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