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
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