Thursday, December 27, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Wild Bill (1995) - What is a Good Motive?

[Quick Summary: The rough and tumble life of Wild Bill Hickok, from Nebraska to Deadwood.]

Wild Bill is pretty memorable, but I kept thinking about the antagonist, Jack McCall.

McCall is a cowardly gunman with a grudge, who follows Wild Bill.

I thought he had a "good" grudge, since his motive convinced me.

What makes a motive convincing anyway?

I remembered author Patricia Highsmith who wrote:

"It's much easier to create from positive, affection emotions than from negative and hateful ones. Jealousy, while powerful, I find of no use at all, and it most resembles the disease cancer, eating away and giving nothing."*

Here, McCall's mother and Wild Bill had a relationship long ago.

The mother languished and died, and McCall always blamed Wild Bill.

Out of love for his mother (positive emotion), McCall swore he'd kill Wild Bill (grudge).
Love would easily energize McCall through the whole story.

But vengeance or jealousy (negative emotions)? Perhaps a few scenes, but they don't have nearly the same kind of sustaining energy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For motives, think in terms of positive emotions.

Wild Bill (1995)
Written & directed by Walter Hill

* Plotting& Writing Suspense Fiction, by Patricia Highsmith, (1983, p. 24).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Alien 3 (1992) - Some Things You Can't Mess With

[Quick Summary: After Ripley's spaceship crash lands (with an alien hitchhiker) on a prison planet, she must rally the prisoners to fight the alien.]

Fortunately, Alien and Aliens set up a franchise.

Unfortunately, Alien 3 had a hellish production.

Fortunately, there is a cohesive script.

Unfortunately, it's missing something...

Here's the best I can explain:

- Ripley is alone on a prison planet. [Fish-out-of-water. Good.]

- The prisoners are suspicious of her story. [New environment. Good.]

- Ripley must convince the prisoners to fight. [Aaaaand here's my problem.]

Ripley is a leader who is pushed to the limit, but in previous films, her team has always had her back.

Half the fun of Alien and Aliens is the team spirit.

I liked watching them solve the puzzle together.

But in Alien 3, the prisoners seem hopeless and resigned to their fate.  They're scared, but not amped up to fight.

In short, most are not on the same page as Ripley.

She must constantly refocus them on the alien...and it gets less and less fun to watch.

I miss the team spirit, you know?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes fundamentals shouldn't change.

Alien 3
by Walter Hill and David Giler

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Red Heat (1988) - A Moment When the Woman Was Essential

[Quick Summary: A Russian cop must team up with an American cop to capture a fugitive Russian cocaine lord who is loose in Chicago.]

As I read everything in my Walter Hill library, I've grown cynical when it comes to the females.

I've noticed the roles tend to be one note and disposable.*

Generally, there's only one job for women.  I wonder why they are marginalized to the edges so often.

Are they a distraction? Is a triangular conflict less intense?

I'll probably never know.

However, one section of Red Heat did surprised me because a female played a rare key role.

Danko, the unemotional Russian cop, is ambushed in his hotel room.

He survives because of unexpected gun power, i.e., the hooker down the hall has had his back.

"DANKO: Wait!

She turns, startled.

DANKO: You saved my life.
HOOKER (suspicious): Yeah?
DANKO: I just wanted to thank you.

And he lifts her, hugs her and kisses her. It is a moment of pure exultation. for the first time since Jusso's [his cop partner] death, he feels glad to be alive.

The Hooker is caught up by his infectious mood and she responds with a great peal of laughter. They have both come through a life and death situation. They have both made it."

The female is essential to the action, for once.

It might not seem like a big deal, but in a Hill script, it's huge.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's great to see a writer step out of the comfort zone.

Red Heat (1988)
Written by Troy Kennedy Martin & Walter Hill
Directed by Walter Hill

*Here, I exclude Alien's Riley, and refer to the other 8 Hill scripts I've read.

Friday, December 7, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: What if There's No Character Arc (a la Jack Reacher)?

I'm extremely curious about the upcoming film, Jack Reacher, based on the book One Shot by Lee Child.

Child writes here about 3 problems why the character of Jack Reacher is troublesome for film:

1 - Reacher's physicality (6'5", 250 lbs.)

2 - "Reacher has no character arc"

3 - "Much of Reacher's appeal is inside his head"

Immediately, #2 made my hair stand on end.

Awhile ago, a writer argued endlessly with me that a character arc is unnecessary in a script.

I countered that it's near impossible to make an interesting story without it. 

I even blogged about its importance here.

I bought the belief in Hollywood that it could not be done.  (Secretly, I'd hoped it was possible, but I have never seen it.)

So how did Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner, writer of The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) adapt this book?

I am dying to know, & will report back as soon as I can read the script.

Anyone have thoughts?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Alien (1979) - One Secret of a Great Action Script

[Quick Summary: The crew of a commercial starship investigates an unknown planet, unaware that a terrifying creature has hijacked on to their ship.]

In the beginning, there was Alien.*

I read this script in its entirety for the first time, and I admit I was discombobulated.

This script is REALLY spare:

- The crew has little back story.
- There is no discussion home or personal life on Earth.
- There is no talk about future hopes and dreams.

The usual tricks to lure the reader are gone, i.e., no lush descriptions or painful character motivations.

So what is left for a compelling story? ONLY the present.

The script is stripped down to the NOW, i.e., getting rid of the monster on the ship ASAP.

The mood is survival. The tone is urgent. It's all-action-all-the-time (as all Hill scripts are).

A good action story is about characters making interesting decisions NOW.

ex. Do we let infected crew back on board?
ex. How to avoid the creature's acid?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't get bogged down in justifying or explaining.  Strip down to the present.

Alien (1979)
by Walter Hill & David Giler
Based on screenplay by Dan O'Bannon
Story by Dan O'Bannon & Ronald Shusett

*For those who don't know, there are 4-5 films built on this one:
- Aliens
- Aliens 3
- Alien Resurrection;
- Alien vs. Predator (arguably)

Go here for the development history and scripts.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: 48 Hours (1982) - Humor in Action

[Quick Summary: A cop teams up with one criminal for 48 hours in order to track down another criminal on the run.]

I remember this film was huge in 1982.

People couldn't stop talking about it and laughing.

How do you insert humor into an action script?  It's not as easy as joke-joke-joke.

I'm no expert on comedy, but after reading this script, I do know high stakes help.

For example, in the scene below, Cates has just revealed Ganz (common antagonist for Cates and Hammond) is out of prison.

The stakes are high for Cates. Hammond is his last lead.

The stakes are also high for Hammond.  He wants something on the outside.

ex.  [Cates] turns, goes out [of Hammond's cell].
The door clangs behind him.
Hammond jumps up and bangs on the bars, shouts at Cates' back...

HAMMOND: Cates! Come back here!

Cates turns, saunters back, leans against the door.

CATES: Yeah?
HAMMOND: I can deliver Ganz. On a plate. But you gotta get me outta here first.
CATES: Bullshit.
HAMMOND: You heard me. Get me a furlough...a pass. There's ways...sick mother, national emergency...
CATES: You're crazy.
HAMMOND: It's the only way I'm gonna help. Get me out.
CATES: What's so important about you gettin' out?
HAMMOND: Who said it was important?

I like that the scene never stops for the comedy.

Both sides desperately need each other, and are pretending they do not.

Somehow that's ironic, funny and still moves us forward, all in one.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Keep the stakes high. It will help the comedy.

48 Hours
by Walter Hill & Larry Gross

Monday, November 19, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Southern Comfort (1981) - The Feeling of Dread

[Quick Summary:  A group of lost National Guardsmen antagonize a couple of Cajun trappers, and become prey in the swampy Louisiana bayou.]

I'm struggling to like these past few Walter Hill scripts. 

It could just be my tastes, but I've liked scripts that were far from my comfort zone. 

One thing I did like in this script was how it conveyed feelings of dread.


Along the edge of the bayou. Masterson moving cautiously along, then stops....


Eight dead rabbits hanging from a tree limb alongside the trail. Thin cord around each of their throats. Each animal has been gutted."

Why does this work? It's not over-the-top-gory or excessively bloody (which is an unpleasant trend today).

1) Because it's personal. 

The 8 men know they are the 8 doomed rabbits.

They also know that the Cajun trappers have superior knowledge and skills in this bayou.

2) Because the image provokes a reaction in the characters.

I often see writers try to replicate dread with a hamster wheel of blood-gore-blood-gore scenes.

I do not see often the characters react to the blood/gore in a way, which move the story forward.

Here, the Guardmen do not react well to the rabbit threat.  As a result, cracks start to appear in the group and they break rank in the next scene.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Dread can stem from a character's personal reaction to a scary sight.

Southern Comfort (1981)
Written and directed by Walter Hill

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Warriors (1979) - Unity & 9 Protagonists

[Quick Summary: After the Warriors are falsely accused of killing a rival gang leader, they are the target of every gang in town, and struggle to get home.]

I like ensemble casts, don't you?

Usually I get mired in scripts with large casts, but I found this one an easy read, because it remembered a couple rules of ensembles:

1 - Pinpoint a leader, i.e., one character who puts the whole story in context. It helps the audience follow along.

In this script, The Fox is a member of a New York gang called the Warriors.

The Warriors are blamed for shooting a rival gang leader during a truce.  

The Fox saw the real shooter.  Thus, he becomes the reason for the story, and for the whole manhunt.

2 - If there are multiple protagonists, antagonists, &/or story lines, they should all be unified in action (cf. Aristotle's Poetics).

The nine Warriors (protagonists) are split up and face many antagonists.

The script moves between their various adventures (multiple story lines):

ex. Swan is captured by the Dingos. Swan must escape a straightjacket to get back to the team.

ex. The Fox regrets bringing Mercy, who was with the Orphan gang, on the journey.  Is Mercy a spy or an innocent?

ex. Cowboy and Rembrandt are lured into a gang chick's lair, and escape an ambush.

So why doesn't the script drag with so many characters and stories?

I think it's because the characters are unified by the same enemy (all gangs) and the same goal (make it home together).

There are several individual stories, but they all move in one direction ----> toward home.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's the unity of story that keep ensemble scripts clear.

The Warriors (1979)
Written and directed by Walter Hill
Based on the novel by Sol Yurick

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Driver (1978) - A Muscular Voice

[Quick Summary: With one last getaway job, the Driver helps out a dame (The Player), and teaches the Detective a lesson to boot.]

Walter Hill has one hell of a muscular voice. 

I hate talking about "voice" because:

1) It's like trying to define the wind.
2) Everyone tells writers they need one. No one tells you how to get it.

But I can't avoid it here.  The Driver has a big muscular voice.

So I'll bumble around trying to define it.

What is voice?  To me, it is how a writer puts the story together. 
- How does the writer focus the reader?
- What is the flow? What choices does he/she make?

What is muscular? It's a blunt, direct energy.
- It pairs off best with action films.
- It's not limited to a male point of view, but does work well.
Here are a few things Hill does to create a muscular voice:

- The easiest to identify is Hill's trademark fast, spare narrative.

ex. "The Connection steps out.
A tall young woman with slicked back hair."

-  The characters have no frills, no extraneous details.

ex. To keep the focus on the here and now, there is virtually no back story on the Driver, or anyone else.

-  Punches make real contact. There is no backing down from conflict.

ex. When the Driver and Detective clash, one wins the skirmish, and they move on.  No whining, no excuses.

-  Men act like men, and women act like women, without either being weak or wimpy.

ex.  There's no hemming or hawing.  If I like you, I let you know. If I don't, I also let you know.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  A muscular voice is very sure of itself.

The Driver (1978)
Written & directed by Walter Hill

Monday, October 29, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Hard Times (1975) - I Can't Explain It

[Quick Summary: Chaney, an uncommon street fighter, temporarily partners up with Speed, a hustler hunted by loan sharks.]

**WARNING TO NEW WRITERS: Read about 50 scripts before you read this one.**

Once in very long while, I read a script that is a rare exception to a rule, and I can't explain why it works. 

This is one of them.

My general rule: The protagonist is the character whose arc changes the most.  

I've had writers ask, "Does the character HAVE to change? Why can't he/she remain the same from beginning to end?"

I usually reply, "Because it's boring.  Watching a character change and learn is interesting."

ex. Bertha (protagonist) begins as a self-absorbed lawyer.  Devious Debbi (antagonist) is the opposing counsel and pushes Bertha to grow.  At the end, Bertha lets someone else take the credit (transforms from selfish to generous).  

Here, however, the writer Walter Hill does not follow the rule.

Chaney does not really change from beginning to the end (in fact, everyone else changes more), AND HE IS STILL INTERESTING.

Why does it work here?

I don't know for sure.

All I know is that the protagonist is mysterious, sympathetic, and keeps us guessing what his next step will be. 

All without any big internal change or emotional arc.

That's really hard to do.

One in a million.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you can write a mysterious, sympathetic, what-will-he-do-next character without an emotional arc, you clearly don't need my blog.

For the remaining 99% of us writers, I highly recommend an emotional arc.

Hard Times (1975)
Written and directed by Walter Hill

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973) - Decisions, Decisions

[Quick Summary: Webster, a computer programmer-turned-thief, gets an unexpected partner in crime who helps him outwit a smart insurance claims man.]

Whoooooeeee! What a fun ride!

Unlike last week, I found this script engaging, especially because of Webster's unpredictable decisions in sticky situations.

- He is sneaky.

ex. As Webster steals from Mrs. Donner's jewelry box, Mrs. Donner and her escort return home. Webster sweats bullets, but dodges them both.

- He confronts.

ex. Webster lifts jewels from a mansion, but two necking teens in a car block his escape.  Exasperated, he shines a light on them.

WEBSTER (shouting): What the hell's going on here! This is private property.
BOY (still wide-eyed): I didn't know this place had a watchman.
WEBSTER: You know it now! Haul ass or I'll have the cops here in five minutes.
BOY: Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Leaving right now.

- He is unafraid to backpedal.

ex.  Laura urges Webster to break into her house.  He does it to impress her, but he learns too late that it's someone else's house.

WEBSTER: Never mind that. Where are the Tylers?
LAURA: Upstairs, asleep, I suppose. They're certainly smart enough to recognize a dull party, they left long before we did.
WEBSTER: Thank you very much. It's been nice knowing you,  I wish you well. Good night.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: A character can continue to surprise audiences with the decisions he/she makes.

The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973)
by Walter Hill

Thursday, October 18, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Getaway (1972 & 1994) - What to Do With the "Girl"

[Quick Summary: After a criminal and his wife are manipulated into robbing dirty money, they cross and double-cross their way to Mexico.]
Who's that action man? Walter Hill!

Who's dan-ger-ous? Walter Hill!

Who can you count on for guns ablazing? Walter Hill!

How many Hill scripts have I read?

So for the next several weeks, I'll steep myself in his body of work.

My first script is The Getaway, both 1972 and 1994 versions.

I didn't like either script, as I often could not figure out what the story was trying to say.

However, the one good thing in these scripts is the way Carol is written.

Carol is the only real "girl" character in a sea of men, and most scripts would treat her as mere window dressing.

But here, she has real weight:

- She makes active decisions as Doc's full partner.
- She stirs up doubt in Doc, which makes him human.
- She makes mistakes that increases the stakes, ex. losing the suitcase of money.

Carol is important, even as a supporting character, because her behavior has a direct affect on Doc McCoy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even if you have a small "girl" role, make her influence felt on the protagonist.

The Getaway (1972 & 1994)
by Walter Hill (based on the novel by Jim Thompson)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Elizabethtown (2005) - When an End Does Me Wrong

[Quick Summary: When a recently fired sneaker designer travels to Kentucky to oversee his father's funeral arrangements, he finds unexpected love.]

In Act 1, I loved the premise of this script, i.e., a guy is sent to retrieve his father's corpse.

In Act 2, I liked the characters, i.e., lost son, smart-ass flight attendant, relatives with grudges.

In Act 3, I became extremely irritated.  First, there is a 7 page Hollie, Drew's mother.

"Hollie?! Why Hollie?" you ask.

Exactly my point.  This is Drew's story.

Drew flies out to Elizabethtown, KY to deal with his father's family. He falls for the flight attendant, learns about his dad, gets over failures.

Hollie, on the other hand, breaks down and stays in Oregon.

She only appears in Kentucky around p. 105.  And for that she gets a big "this is what I've learned" speech?

No no no.

Second, Act 3 read as if there was no end in sight.

Roger Ebert writes about his first viewing of the first cut: "It seemed to end, and end, and end."*

Reading it also felt that way.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Please - no new people, & wrap it up ASAP in Act 3.

Elizabethtown (2005)
Written & directed by Cameron Crowe

*Ebert saw the film twice. The first was longer and shown at the Toronto Film Festival.  The final cut was much tighter, and had 18 min. trimmed.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Vanilla Sky (2001) - An Unsatisfying Read

[Quick Summary: An heir to a NY fortune searches for answers after he wakes up again and again to what could be a surreal dream or a nightmare.]

I simply don't understand this script.  I wish I did.

In Act 1, David Aames, Jr. is pursuing the girl of his dreams (literally).

In Act 2, he's in dreams, he's out of dreams, he plunges into nightmares, he wakes up from nightmares.

In Act 3, he comes to a self-realization in the end, and wants to live a real life.

But what was the point of his journey?

The ending doesn't have any easy answers (fair enough), but I wish the script was clearer about why Aames needed self-realization.

I was at a loss, and ended up not liking this script very much.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  This Cameron Crowe script was unlike any other I've read.

It was a technically adept Crowe script, but it felt odd.

It was not just the genre, but the tempo, the mood, the narrative line.  Probably because it was an adaption?

Vanilla Sky (2001)
by Cameron Crowe
Based on a screenplay "Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes)" by Alejandro Amenabar & Mateo Gil

Saturday, September 29, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Hoffa (1992) - Transitions & Emotional Impact

[Quick Summary: Jimmy Hoffa gives his life to and for the Teamsters.]

I once heard someone ask a famous screenwriter, "What separates a good writer from a great one?"

"Transitions," he said.   It's always stuck with me.

As I read this script, I noticed that the transitions were not just a location change.

ex. "ANGLE
In a long shot, the armed strikebreakers thrashing their way into the line of the strikers.

A young woman screaming.

INT. THE R.E.A. BUILDING. The businessmen we saw in the previous sequence, pressed forward in the window of a paneled board room, looking down. [This smooth move from the freightyard to the boardroom is a reaction shot.]

Their POV, the slaughter in the freightyard below.

In the freightyard. Ciaro, clubbing a man to the ground. Looks around. [We move back to the freightyard to see the action.]

Hoffa. Being set upon by two strikebreakers....

INT. THE BOARDROOM.  A man's hand closes the curtains on the fight below. [Back to the boardroom for another reaction shot.]

A line of long drawn faces. Men and women dressed in their "best'. Nodding at the camera, moving on. There is a break in the line, to reveal, behind them, a huge floral [funeral] wreath...." [This scene is the consequences of the fighting.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  You can use transitions to drive an emotional point home.

In the example above:

- Action in freightyard --> Boardroom's REACTION is to panic
- Action in freightyard --> The funeral is the CONSEQUENCES

[By the way, this is something the reader is not even conscious of (but the writer should be!)]

Hoffa (1992)
by David Mamet

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Almost Famous (2000) - The "Do or Die" Moment

[Quick Summary: A precocious 15 y.o. teen struggles between being a Rolling Stones journalist and a friend when he hits the road with the 1970s band Stillwater.]

Hurrah! Your protagonist is one step from a turning point.

Now don't screw it up. [Yeah, I'm talking you, writers.]

Don't make that last step too big (ex. William suddenly gets superpowers.)

Or too small (ex. William fails to speak up, thus ending the story early.)

In this script, Cameron Crowe does a nice job of escalating the stakes, which sets up that last step and gives it extra punch.

ex.  William stands at the backstage door of his first assignment.

The bouncer won't let him in (attempt #1).

Super-groupie Penny Lane helps William, but still no success (attempt #2).

Finally the band arrives, and rejects his plea for an interview

William, now emboldened, blurts out his heartfelt understanding of the band's music (last step).

This last step is the right size because:

- William takes action
- It pushes the story forward (what will happen next?)
- It's realistic that he'd go for it, since he's tried twice

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  The last step before a turning point is the "do or die" moment.

Almost Famous (2000)
Written and directed by Cameron Crowe

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) - Dialogue is 90% Setup

[Quick Summary: A slice of life from the point of view of a group of American teens.]

I liked this script, but it's not my favorite Cameron Crowe script.

Since I don't know why yet, I'll leave you with a favorite scene.

This one features Brad, the high school senior who works after school at a fast food chain, and his boss.

Dennis heads back to his office when he sees something in the trash bin.

DENNIS: Did you throw away those fries, Hamilton?
BRAD: They were left over from the last shift.
DENNIS: Those were perfectly good fries, Hamilton. (glares at Brad) Perfectly good.
BRAD: But they weren't mine.

Brad laughs, goes back to work."

I liked this scene because it shows us so much about Brad's internal life:

- He takes pride in his work.
- He is not afraid to challenge authority.
- He has a sense of humor.

Most people will only see the clever dialogue.

But if you're smart, you'll notice how the scene was constructed for maximum effect.

There's a careful combination of conflict (battle of authority), topic (french fries), and setting (at the deep fryer) that makes the dialogue work.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Dialogue is 90% setup, 10% payoff.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Book and screenplay by Cameron Crowe

Thursday, September 13, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Say Anything (1989) - How To Have More Icing

[Quick Summary: A recent high school grad romances the valedictorian for one last carefree summer.]

Darn you, Cameron Crowe!

How do you make such a talky script like Say Anything work (because it really does)?!

Here are 4 things that I saw that worked:

1 - There's very little narrative (sometimes 1-2 lines per page).  The reader is allowed to imagine most of the details.

2 - The essentials are very specific.  Each character's motive, flaws, and purpose are unambiguous.

ex. Lloyd is optimistic and undeterred in pursuing Diane, despite the fact she's out of his league.

3 - The dialogue is realistic, conflicted, and funny, but mostly conflicted.

ex. LLOYD: "I wanna get hurt!"

4 - The conflict is familiar, and never false for the character

ex. Lloyd wants to date Diane (familiar).  Dating her never stops being important to him (never false).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Scripts could probably handle a lot more dialogue (the icing) if the structure (the cake) is set up right to handle it.

Say Anything (1989)
Written & Directed by Cameron Crowe

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Odd Couple 2 (1998) - D.O.A. of a Good Sequel

[Quick Summary: Thirty years later, Felix and Oscar reunite for a road trip to their children's wedding.]

Neil Simon had a huge hit with The Odd Couple play in 1965.

But then came:

- A huge movie (1968)
- A popular tv series (1970-75)
- A cartoon (1975)
- A sitcom (1982-83)
- A reunion tv movie (1993)

If you were Simon in 1998, would you write a sequel 30 years after the original?

I am glad he did because this is a good sequel script.

It keeps enough of what made the original special, and continues to develop the characters with new challenges

Unfortunately, the timing sucked.

Generations grew up with other Odd Couples.  Matthau/Lemon had moved on to the similar Grumpy Old Men (1993).

Neil Simon said it best:

"If this were 1967 instead of 1999, The Odd Couple [2] would have made a perfect sequel on the heels of the first one....[It] would have had the same energy as the first one." *

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes a good sequel can be dead on arrival.

* Preface of The Odd Couple 1 &2.

The Odd Couple 2 (1998)
by Neil Simon

Thursday, August 30, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Odd Couple I (1968) - Show Me a Slob

[Quick Summary: When slobby Oscar and neat freak Felix become temporary roommates, chaos ensues.]

Here's how Neil Simon SHOWS (and not TELLS) us that Oscar is a slob:


It is an unholy mess. [Oscar's surroundings = Oscar himself.]

Most of the things are uncovered, a half-eaten lamb chop, bottles without caps, melting ice cream in a dish, etc. [Oscar is unorganized.]

Oscar's hand reaches in to get a bottle of Coke and he knocks over a jar of syrup that drips onto the next shelf, getting the lamb chop.  [Syrup + lamb = Messy.]

It's too horrible to describe. Oscar gets the Coke out." [Oscar is unaffected.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One prop can show so much about a character's inner state.

The Odd Couple (1968)
by Neil Simon (based on his play)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Magic (1978) - Art of Blurring

[Quick Summary:  A timid ventriloquist just might be possessed by his bawdy dummy...or not.]

Bad news: Psychological horror/thrillers are hard to write.

Good news: There's a high demand.

Bad news: Most psychological horror/thriller spec scripts don't know how to blur the line between reality and the bizarre/fantasy.

Good news: Magic does blurring very well. 

So how did Goldman do it?

#1 - The script takes time to establish:

- Who Corky is (awkward ventriloquist, loyal, fears success)
- What he wants (to be with Peg, his childhood fantasy girl)

#2 - The script makes Fats (the dummy) a crutch in Corky's world.  

ex. Fats expresses Corky's deepest, unspoken feelings.
ex. Fats is the reason Corky gets jobs.

Weird becomes "normal" for Corky.

#3 - To be with Peg (goal), Corky must break up with Fats (face his demons).

The psychological horror/thrill comes from the fact that it's darned near impossible now to tell where the demons are coming from:

- Is Fats is real?
- Or has an evil dummy possessed Corky?
- Or is it all in Corky's mind?

The torment is that Corky has melded to his crutch/demon.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  To blur reality vs. non-reality, justify both sides.

ex. Reality = Peg
Non-reality = Fats
Corky wants both but can only have one, so he vacillates.

Magic (1978)
by William Goldman (from his novel)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) - Killing Off a Character

[Quick Summary: After a series of failures, a 1920s daredevil pilot tries to regain his confidence by flying for the movies.]

This script had everything going for it!

Airplane chases! Romance! Death! Envy! An underdog!

So why do I feel so ... lukewarm about it?

I suppose it's because I was so invested in Waldo and Mary Beth. 

Mary Beth is a challenging, spunky counterpoint to Waldo, and brings out the best in him. 

Unfortunately, she's killed off approximately 2/3 into the script. For the last 1/3, it seems as if she never even existed.

Without that relationship, Waldo seems less accessible.

Frankly, I just lost heart in his journey.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's a tricky balance to know when to kill off a character. 

Just make sure you have a really good reason.

(And repeating it again in the last 1/3 wouldn't hurt.)

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
Script by William Goldman
Story by George Roy Hill

Thursday, August 9, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Marathon Man (1976) - Trait & Conflict in Dialogue

[Quick Summary: A graduate student who is at the wrong place, wrong time, runs from a sadistic Nazi dentist.]

Why do I root for the protagonist Babe?

He's just so earnest.

ex. In his first conversation with Elsa, note how the dialogue expresses:

a) Babe's earnest trait, and
b) the struggle to say "I like you."

BABE: Sorry to bother you, Miss Opel, but one of your books must have fallen in your cubicle earlier and I happened to spot it - (hands it over) - just thought it might be important. [He's sincere.]

ELSA: That's very kind. (starting to go inside) Good night.

BABE: 'Night. Your name and address are on the inside - "Elsa Opel" and where you live - in case you were curious how I found you, Miss Opel. [He's desperate to keep it going.]

ELSA: I wasn't. Good night.

BABE: 'Night. [No manipulation.]

ELSA: You keep saying that but you also don't leave.

BABE: I twisted my ankle on the way over, I was giving it a rest. [Flimsy, but a brave stab.]

ELSA: You weren't limping jst now.

BABE: I'm the worst when it comes to lying. [Throws himself at her mercy.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Good dialogue tells us about the character's trait(s) AND inner conflict.

Marathon Man
Screenplay and novel by William Goldman

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Harper (1966) - When Violence Has Meaning

[Quick Summary: "A private detective is hired by an unloving wife to find her rich drunk husband." *]

I saw this video interview with writer/director Terry George.  George recommended:

1) Reading William Goldman's Absolute Power script (which I did; it is faboo!)

2) Getting my grubby paws on anything Goldman's ever written, even unproduced scripts.

Hmmm.   I realized then how little I knew of Goldman's lesser known works (to be rectified in the coming weeks.) 

So I begin with Harper, Goldman's first produced film.

It's a noir, so I expected violence. 

What I didn't expect was it was "good" story violence, i.e., violence that I could justify.

ex. Harper is bound and tied in a shed.  A thug keeps watch.

Harper insults him, and gets backhanded.  ["Shut up, Harper," I thought.]

"You stink," Harper says. Another backhand.  [What are you doing?]

"You're afraid of me."  Gut punch. [Shut up NOW.]

The thug pummels Harper into mush. [Pleeease stay down.]

Then the stupid thug unties him and says, "Now try to trick me." [Don't take the bait!]

Harper manages to barely stand.... [Don't do it!]

...and proceeds to trick the thug. [Wow!]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Here, violence has a defined STORY purpose.

The fight built up the thug's confidence ---> increases the payoff when Harper reverses the situation.

by William Goldman
Adapted from the novel The Moving Target by Ross McDonald

*This is William Goldman's own logline. I couldn't improve on it any better.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Spanish Prisoner (1997) - It's Like 3 Card Monty

[Quick Summary: After corporate employee designs a "process", he's conned into leaking it to a competitor...or so we think.]

Random thoughts about this script:

1. It is not about Spain nor is it a war movie.
2. Like another Mamet script, it's all about the con game.
3. I was all prepared to catch the surprise twist, honestly, I did...but Mamet conned me too.

More random thoughts:

1. This was good, but it wasn't my favorite Mamet script.
2. The reason the con is such a great framework is because the protagonist is a pro-active participant.
3. How do you not telegraph the twist? Everyone but the protagonist stays super-normal, so our eyes are drawn to him, not the wily antagonist.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Mamet is unusually adept at fooling my expectations.

Like three card monty, I always pick the wrong card.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
by David Mamet

Monday, May 28, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Altered States (1980) - When Emotional Change Takes a Back Seat

[Quick Summary: A Harvard physician experiments with an isolation tank and a little known drug that regresses him into a primitive state.]

If The Hospital was a crazy script in a good way, Altered States was crazy in a bad way for me.

Dr. Jessup has a deep need to ferret out the science behind altered states of consciousness. [Fair enough.]

He seeks out a Mexican drug that regresses him into an ape, and even into goo. [Ok, I can buy that.]

I could stomach the extreme, far out psychological visions.

I managed the bizarre physical transformations

However, no amount of flash, sparkle,  SFX, & violence in the script could make up for the fact that Jessup has little emotional change until the end.

I soon got tired of the spectacle because I felt very far from Jessup.

He does not regret eliminating everything in his life - wife, daughters, friendships.  

He is so focused on his experiments that there is less and less story.

As the experiments got wilder and weirder, I cared less and less.  Yikes.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  The difference between The Hospital (great) vs. Altered States (so-so) was emotional change vs. less emotional change.

Altered States (1980)
by Paddy Chayefsky

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Hospital (1971) - Order Only in Hindsight

[Quick Summary:  One night at the hospital, a chief of staff on his last straw faces several crises, including  intertwining staff deaths, and an odd young woman.]

This is a crazy-assed script.

I honestly had no idea where the story was going.

First, I worried about Dr. Herbert Bock, the crotchety doctor with every reason to be suicidal. 
Then I got upset when the deaths of various hospital staffers interrupted Dr. Bock's story.

(It was like commercials interrupting your favorite soap opera.)

I didn't care as much that the hospital had run amok.

I just wanted to know if Dr. Bock was going to make it.

Here's kicker #1: I didn't even like Dr. Bock.  But I still worried.

Here's kicker #2: The various staff deaths are important in the end to Dr. Bock's final decision.

Chayefsky did it again:

1) He made me care about a character I did not like.
2) He brought order out of what looked like chaos on the page.
3) It was a surprising journey.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is a technically difficult script.

To keep the chaos going while leaving clues and also not lose the audience? Very thin line.

The Hospital (1971)
by Paddy Chayefsky

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: House of Games (1987)

[Quick Summary: Margaret Ford, a female psychiatrist, falls for a Mike's con, and becomes entrapped in his elaborate crime web.]

Mike tells Margaret that the "confidence game" works because the mark doesn't give the confidence.

The con man gives his confidence to the mark, usually by bringing the mark in on the scheme.

Mike does it again and again to Margaret.

ex. At their first meeting, he asks her to help him, and she loses her bank account.

ex. Mark develops Margaret's trust by showing her how the game works on a young man at the Western Union office.

ex. His cronies show her how the Tap con works.

The script ups the ante with each demonstration. Margaret feels "in", accepted, and somewhat invulnerable.

The last thing on her mind is that these nice guys were setting her up...and BOOM! That's when it happens.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The stakes rise beautifully as Mike confides more and more in Margaret.

Also, the false sense of security is a great setup for a great third act payoff

House of Games (1989)
Written & directed by David Mamet

Thursday, May 10, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Things Change (1988) -

[Quick Summary: After an old Chicago Italian-American shoeshine man agrees to take the rap for a mob guy, he is assigned a keeper, who takes them on one last adventure in Lake Tahoe.]

Holy crap, this is unbelievably good writing.

Roger Ebert states it best: This film "confirms Mamet's gift for leading us through truly bewildering plots."

The plot seems simple. 

In two days, the old shoeshine man Gino (Don Amache) will admit to a murder he didn't commit. In exchange, the mob boss will give him a boat when Gino gets out of jail.

Jerry (Joe Mantegna), a lower mob guy, babysits Gino for these two days.

Jerry feels sorry for the old man and decides to take Gino to Lake Tahoe for one last hurrah.

Now the plot really shines when impossible things happen.  Gino's innocent curiosity and unbelievable timing keeps Jerry hopping.

Why do we believe it at all?  Because it all stems from Gino's character.

ex. Jerry takes Gino to the roulette table. Jerry has rigged it with the house that Gino will continue to win, but not take any of the winnings.

Soon Gino turns a few bucks into $35k, and followers flock to the table.

Jerry pulls them away and makes up a reason that the money has to be given back.

Gino agrees, and we think that's the end of the situation.

But it's not.

When Jerry is busy, Gino wanders away to a Wheel of Fortune. He bets the entire $35k on a turn to see if his streak would continue.

That's what was great about the script.

We believe this unbelievable moment because this is something curious Gino would do.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If the character believes it, I'll believe it too.

Things Change (1988)
by David Mamet & Shel Silverstein

Thursday, May 3, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Americanization of Emily (1964) - Blow & Pop of Satire

[Quick Summary: A cowardly American Naval officer & "dog robber" falls for a patriotic, female British chauffeur but their opposing views on the war is problematic.]

Paddy Chayefsky came up with the idea of writing this as a black satirical comedy on a plane to NYC.

What is satire? Glad you asked.

Satire (n.): A literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.
Easy enough, but how do you actually write satire?

Chayefsky did it by juxtaposing ridiculousness with reality.

Let's see how he ridicules the hype of war:


MRS. BARHAM: Emily, well, I must warn you. Charlie's picture is in all the papers, and they're going to build a monument on his grave.

[Reality: Charlie, the coward, is being celebrated as a hero.]

EMILY (studying the Globe): What on earth for? All he did was die. Dear me, we shall be celebrating cancer and automobile smash-ups next.

[Ridiculousness: This is stupid.]

CUMMINGS: He didn't just die, Emily! He sacrificed his life!

[Reality: Charlie is the war's next poster boy.]

MRS. BARHAM: Well, that was very pagan of him.

[Ridiculousness:  Who does that help? Warmongers?]

CUMMINGS: He was the first American to die on Omaha Beach.

[Reality: This is a PR dream!]

EMILY: Was there a contest?

[Ridiculousness: What kind of contest are you running?]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One recipe for satire is to blow up a balloon with human vices, then pop it with ridicule.

The Americanization of Emily (1964)
by Paddy Chayefsky
Adapted from the novel by William Bradford Huie

Monday, April 30, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Bugsy (1991) - Three is Not a Crowd

[Quick Summary: Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel tries to build the first big casino in Las Vegas, but as costs skyrocket, his mafia financiers put the screws on him.]

I was intrigued how Toback applied "Warren Beatty's Third Intelligence Theory"* over & over to scenes.

The tension grows because there are three people instead of two.

ex. Harry Greenberg, one of Bugsy's oldest friends, has ratted on the "family" and asks Bugsy what to do.

Bugsy takes Harry for a drive, and Virginia insists on going too. [The triangle in this scene is Bugsy, Virginia, & Harry.]

In the car, Harry brings up Virginia's ex-boyfriend and Bugsy's divorce. [Ignorant Harry makes things worse.]

At the train trestle road, Bugsy and Harry walk up a path.Virginia gets impatient and yells to Bugsy.  [Virginia ups the tension now.]

Shots. Bugsy returns without Harry.  Virginia is distraught. [The tension now is HIGHER than before.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: A 3rd person can really push the main story forward.

Bugsy (1991)
by James Toback

* Toback writes about "Beatty's Third Intelligence Theory of Moviemaking" in the introduction to the script:

"Essentially, the idea is that three people deciding the course of a movie are better than two, since when there are two, one always emerges as the stronger and the film is left without a sufficiently tense dialectic, whereas when there are three, every idea needs to pass rigorous scrutiny."

Toback was talking about himself, Beatty and director Barry Levinson, but it can also apply to screenwriting.

** This is a very smooth read after
- 20 drafts (over 6 yrs.)
- 7 rewrites (in 4 months of pre-production), &amp
- daily re-writing of lines, moments and scenes daily (over 3 months of shooting)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Goddess (1958) - Take the Punch

[Quick Summary: To ward off loneliness, a young unloved girl grasps at a career as an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet, but it's never enough.]

Emily Ann Faulkner, who transforms herself into Rita Shawn,just can't understand why no one loves her enough.

I mean, after all, she's made all the "right" decisions for her career:

-  Like leaving her child with her ex-husband
-  And getting married to a 2nd guy who tells her he'd be a terrible husband
-  And sleeping with producers as bribes for parts

But this isn't a story about career vs. personal life.

It's about a woman who angles, schemes, begs, guilts, and STILL can't fathom what is wrong with other people...when the real problem is her.

Chayefsky allows his characters to make decisions, then suffer the consequences each time.  It's real life.

There's no pulling the punch, which I see too much in spec scripts. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's nice to see characters take the punch.

If they learn from it, they will have earned their victory at the end.

If they don't, then they don't deserve it anyway.

The Goddess (1958)
by Paddy Chayefsky

Friday, April 20, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Marty (1955) - Hey, That's Me!

[Quick Summary: Marty the butcher can't get a date to save his life, until one night...]

Paddy Chayefsky was an award winning playwright, tv and film writer for a reason.

He sure knew how to introduce a character with actions instead of words.

The script opens and a female customer peppers Marty the butcher with questions about his brother's recent wedding. Then she basically needles him with "Why aren't YOU married, Marty?"

Marty is polite, but exasperated.

Why? Because the next female customer is exactly the same: "I heard about your brother's wedding. So why aren't YOU married, Marty?"

We get the idea that this happens ALL day long and instantly, we know all about Marty...and he's said very little.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Chayefsky writes beautifully flawed but identifiable characters.

Who's Marty? Marty is me.  That awkward situation? I've been there too.

Now that's a great introduction!

Marty (1955)
by Paddy Chayefsky

Thursday, April 19, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: Goal Acomplished!

I finished the 101 WGA Scripts of All Time!

I managed to read all but two (#57 Crimes & Misdemeanors, & #37 The Philadelphia Story).

Some I simply could not finish (ex. #23 Gone With the Wind).

A few I did not completely understand (ex.#87 8 1/2).

But overall, this was the best thing I've ever done for myself as a  writer. 

Thank you, writers, for allowing me to stuff my tool box with little things that I noticed in your scripts that made them great.

I think I will keep up this one script per week as long as I can.  

Any suggestions?

Monday, April 9, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #31 WGA Script of All Time - His Girl Friday (1940)

[Quick Summary: The night before a newspaper woman is to be re-married, her news publisher ex-husband lures her back into the news game with a juicy capital murder story.]

This movie is praised loudly & widely for its funny, fast-paced, furious dialogue.

Upon reading the script, I was interested to note that the dialogue is great in large part because the REACTION SHOTS are so great.

ex. "HILDY: I won't be more than ten minutes, I promise you.
BRUCE: Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.

We hear a giggle off scene.


He looks towards Bruce and Hildy and giggles.


HILDY: What did you say, Bruce?

Bruce, embarrassed, looks at the office boy, then looks back at Hildy as they turn toward second gate leading into City Room.

BRUCE: I said -- uh -- I said even ten minutes -- is a long time -- to be away from you."
HILDY: Don't be embarrassed, Bruce. I heard it, but I just wanted to hear it again.

Notice the reactions:
1) The office boy giggles at the lovey dovey adults
2) Bruce is even more embarrassed & we know he's a private guy
3) Bruce's response to Hildy shows that he lets her lead the relationship

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Reaction shots can be an extension of the dialogue.

His Girl Friday (1940)
by Charles Lederer

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #32 WGA Script of All Time - Fargo (1996)

[Quick Summary: When a car salesman schemes to have his wife kidnapped from their small town, it all goes wrong.]

A Coen brothers trademark is not to use "EXT./INT." in the slug lines.

So how do they make sure that the reader is clear about changes in location? It's all in the transitions:

1) The narrative and dialogue work together to show us where we are.


Jerry enters through the kitchen door....He is carrying a bag of groceries which he deposits on the kitchen counter. [Where are we? Whose house is this?]

JERRY: Hon? Got the growshries. [Ah-ha! We know we're in his house because a person would only use that kind of familiar language if he were in his own house.]"

2) Scene A ends and we SEE in Scene B that we have changed locations.

ex. Scene A - Over dinner at Jerry's house, Jerry asks his father-in-law Wade for a loan.

Scene B - "WHITE. A black like curls through the white. Twisting perspective shows that it is an AERIAL SHOT of a two-lane highway, bordered by snowfields. The highway carries one moving car."

The narrative of Scene B leads the reader into the outdoors with key words such as "aerial shot," "highway," and "snow."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've depended too much on slug lines to change locales. Gotta orient the reader more with the narrative.

Fargo (1996)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Thursday, March 29, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #33 WGA Script of All Time - The Third Man (1949)

[Quick Summary: When a novelist arrives in postwar Vienna to visit his friend Harry Lime, he learns Harry has died & sets out to find witnesses, including a mysterious 3rd man.]


- The only available script is the shooting script, which is rather long (217 pgs.)

- The plentiful stage directions often made me lose track of the story again & again.


- The script drops clues very well.

- It's an easy story to understand: A man arrives from out-of-town & his friend Harry died in an "accident." As he asks innocent questions, the inconsistent stories make him suspicious.

- Every clue opens another door, & propels us forward - what's going to happen next?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Clues must arise naturally. 

ex. The protagonist sees pretty Anna (Harry's girlfriend) at the funeral. He's attracted & curious, so he creates an opportunity to talk to (& question) her.

The Third Man (1949)
by Graham Greene

Thursday, March 22, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #37 WGA Script of All Time - The Philadelphia Story (1940)

[Quick Summary: When a socialite is gets remarried, she's caught between her ex-husband and a journalist who both show up uninvited at the wedding.]

[Grrrr...My apologies for this out-of-order post. I hate that.]

I could not find this script anywhere in print, so watched the film instead.

[Grrrr again, especially because it's a rare rom-com on the 101 list.]

Rom-coms today often make the mistake of putting plot over relationships. 

This film reminds us that it's the dynamic spark between the Man & Woman that elevates a story from average to great. 

ex. Katherine Hepburn charms the journalist (Jimmy Stewart) by looking up his book at the library.  He's flattered and flummoxed.

ex. Reminiscing about the past, Cary Grant both charms and needles Hepburn, who holds her own.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Spark = "Why these two should be together"

It's the mojo of rom-coms.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
by Donald Ogden Stewart

Sunday, March 18, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #34 WGA Script of All Time - Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

[Quick Summary: When a a megalomaniacal gossip columnist cuts him out of the loop, a desperate publicist strikes a devil's bargain to break up the relationship of the columnist's sister.]

This script kicks ass, takes names, and annihilates those too.

Despite clocking in at 184 pgs., it reads far quicker than some 90 pg. scripts I've seen.  I easily rank this in my Top 5 "must read" scripts.

If you ever need a refresher in HIGH STAKES, check out how Sidney Falco suffers mightily from a lack of publicity.  No wonder Sidney must agree to Hunsecker's plans.

If you ever need to see CLEAR, STRONG GOALS, look at Sidney's voracious appetite to succeed, and Hunsecker's hunger for power over his sister's life.

If you ever need to see unbelievably good MANIPULATION through REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY, try the confrontation between Hunsecker & his sister (p. 163-166).

It's fresh, cutting edge and a script I'd buy today ---and it's over 50 yrs. old!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Manipulate the hell out of your characters. It makes them more memorable.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
by Clifford Odets & Ernest Lehman
From the novelette by Ernest Lehman

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #35 WGA Script of All Time - The Usual Suspects (1995)

[Quick Summary: A group of cons are blackmailed into a smash-and-grab job, but it multiplies into a nightmare, all orchestrated by a mysterious Keyser Sose.]

I love how this script fools the audience the right way.

First, the script plays fair with the audience the entire time. It lays out all the clues.

ex. Dean was lying on that dock. Sose stands above him.

Second, everything has two meanings, though the audience does not know until the end.

ex. We believe Verbal's account that Sose probably killed Dean...except later we learn why Verbal so easily lied about Sose.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Trying hard to trick the audience = Bad.

Playing fair & twisting expectations = Excellent.

The Usual Suspects (1995)
by Christopher McQuarrie

Thursday, March 8, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #36 WGA Script of All Time - Midnight Cowboy (1969)

[Quick Summary: When a Southern dishwasher comes to NYC to find a rich sugar mama, he faces a very harsh reality, and is helped only by a sickly, fast talking crippled punk.]

This isn't for the faint of heart.  It's a raw, nearly unbearable, dark tragedy. 

However, the sheer vulnerability is the one thing that makes this script hard to read, but it's also THE reason to read it.

As Joe tries to make it in NYC, all his inner turmoil spills out (which makes it interesting) AND he learns from it (which makes a great arc).

ex. Joe makes bad decisions, yet he stands up for himself when people try to take advantage of him.

ex. Joe is barely able to support himself, much less another person, but he takes care of loyal Ratso until the end.

ex. Joe is haunted by his mother and a damaged past, yet he keeps a surprisingly upbeat attitude for the future.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I respond to vulnerability in characters.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)
by Waldo Salt
Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy

Saturday, March 3, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #38 WGA Script of All Time - American Beauty (1999)

[Quick Summary: A depressed suburban dad in a mid-life crisis changes course after he becomes infatuated with his teen daughter's classmate.]

This is how you say "feel sorry for me" without saying it:

CAROLYN: "Oh! Oh! And I want to thank you for putting me under the added pressure of being the sole breadwinner now --

LESTER: I already have a job.

CAROLYN (not stopping): No, no, don't give a second thought as to who's going to pay the mortgage. We'll just leave it all up to Carolyn. You mean, you're going to take care of everything  now, Carolyn? Yes. I don't mind. I really don't. You mean, everything You don't mind having the sole responsibility, your husband feels he can just quit his job --

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Great dialogue shows how the character feels.  But it's still show, not tell.

American Beauty (1999)
by Alan Ball

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #39 WGA Script of All Time - The Sting (1973)

[Quick Summary: A young con teams up with a shady master con to exact revenge on a criminal banker.]

The Sting is well known for the big twist/reveal at the end. (I won't spoil it.)

The key is that it plays fair with the audience:

- No new character/tool/god that appears from nowhere to solve the plot (deus ex machina).
- No withholding clues.
- It lets the audience participate and decide for themselves who to believe or doubt.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Lay all the clues out there, but let the audience put 2 + 2 together.

The Sting (1973)
by David S. Ward

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #40 WGA Script of All Time - When Harry Met Sally (1989)

[Quick Summary: A man & woman meet after college, become good friends over a decade, but are afraid to fall in love.]

In honor of Valentine's Day, I present dialogue that hints at feelings of love.


Sally and Marie go about getting the coffee ready.

SALLY: Emily's a little young for Harry, don't you think?
MARIE: She's young, but look at what she's done.
SALLY: What has she done? She makes desserts.


JESS: He's a good guy. You should talk to him, get to know him.
HARRY: He's too tall to talk to.


MARIE: Its' not just desserts. She makes 3500 chocolate mousse pies a week.

JESS: He took us to a Mets game last week, it was great.
Harry: You all went to a Mets game?
JESS: Yeah, it was a last minute thing.
HARRY: But Sally hates baseball.


SALLY: Harry doesn't even like sweets.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: We know Harry & Sally like each other because:

1) They disparage the other person's date; &
2) They're disturbed when they find that that date is more impressive than expected.

And no on-the-nose dialogue anywhere.

When Harry Met Sally (1989)
by Nora Ephron

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #41 WGA Script of All Time - Goodfellas (1990)

[Quick Summary: As Henry Hill rises in the ranks of the mafia, he is entangled in vices which are his downfall.]

Voice overs are like dynamite. 

If used improperly, they're like grenades that go off at the wrong time. 

But if the writer knows what he/she is doing, they're like fireworks that illuminate and surprise.

This script is in the latter category.  It's also the first script I've seen where there are not one, but TWO voice overs, i.e., Henry and Karen Hill.

So why does Karen's second voice over work here? 

1 - This is Henry's story and told from Henry's point of view. 

2 - Though Karen's voice over is told from her point of view, she tells us more about HENRY'S life. 

She fills in the blanks about HENRY'S behind-the-scenes problems. She echoes how the audience feels about HENRY.  She reflects HENRY'S point of view.

ex. KAREN (V.O.): "He was an exciting guy. He was really nice. He introduced me to everybody. Everybody wanted to be nice to him. And he knew how to handle it."

ex. KAREN (V.O.): "We weren't married to nine-to-five guys..."

ex. KAREN (V.O.): "None of it seemed like crimes. It was more that Henry was enterprising."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Yes, two voice overs are possible... IF it the 2nd re-emphasizes/amplifies/reflects the main point of view.

Gotta keep the unity-of-story thing intact, you know.

Goodfellas (1990)
by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #42 WGA Script of All Time - Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

[Quick Summary: Archeologist Indiana Jones must track down the lost Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.]

Yeah, yeah, yeah, don't talk to me about bad B stories/subplots.

I've seen bunches of them that:

- Wander off to nowhere
- Compete with the A story for the biggest twist
- Strangle the A story in complications

I define the B story as sub-story that supports, reflects, or pushes the A story forward.

So let's check out how Kasdan setup a good B story between Indy and Marion:

ex. "[Marion] is almost on him when Indy looks up smiling. Marion stops, stares, shocked.

INDY: Hello Marion.

She hits him with a solid right to the jaw, knocking him off the barstool on the floor. He rubs his jaw and smiles up at her.

INDY: Nice to see you, too.
MARION: Get up and get out.
INDY: Take it easy. I'm looking for your father.
MARION (bitterly): Well you're two years too late."

What do we know from this 1st meeting?
- Indy left Marion on bad terms, but still likes her. [The B story complicates his journey.]
- He needs her cooperation to find the ark. [The B story pushes the A story forward to his goal.]
- Marion is a useful partner. [She has a stake in his success, which keeps us focused on the goal.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The tension between Marion and Indy (subplot) increases the fun of the hunt (main plot).

That's really all you want in a subplot.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
by Lawrence Kasdan

Thursday, January 26, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #43 WGA Script of All Time - Taxi Driver (1976)

[Quick Summary: A lonely war vet turned taxi driver turns violent to clean up what he views as "trash" in NYC, and manages to save a young prostitute in the process.]

Paul Schrader, the writer, said he knew he was writing about loneliness in this script.

Later, he figured out he was writing about the "pathology of loneliness," i.e., how a person reinforces his loneliness by his own behavior.

What is so compelling about this script is that it announces what it is about, keeps it cohesive, and delivers what it promises in every scene. 

ex. "TRAVIS looks like the most suspicious human being alive.

His hair is cropped short, he wears mirror-reflecting glasses. His face is pallid and drained of color, his lips are pursed and drawn tight. He looks from side to side." 

Now that is loneliness personified just in a description.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script reaches a very deep "a-ha! I've been there" feeling that's hard to express.  

[Even Scorsese said he had to make this picture to express the emotions that he could not express otherwise.]

Taxi Driver (1976)
by Paul Schrader

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #44 WGA Script of All Time - Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

[Quick Summary: When three military men return home from the war, it's an uncomfortable readjustment for all.]

Once upon a time, I covered a spec script where the writer insisted on three plots: A, B, and C. 

Since no plot overlapped, the story was mammoth.

I was always confused and at a loss what to recommend since the writer refused to consider subplots or any consolidation.

Is it possible to give multiple plots equal time, and still be one cohesive story?  I would've said no... until I read this script. 

Here, there are three distinct plots A, B & C, but it is amazingly cohesive. 

The keys are:

- The 3 main characters are facing the same issue (readjusting to home life after the war)
- The 3 men meet up periodically and interact
- Two plots eventually intertwine
- When it is A's story, B & C are supporting cast. When it's B's story, A & C support him.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Multiple plots ARE possible...if they are all related somehow.

I underestimated the power of unity to help the audience follow along. ex. Each soldier had a different problem, but they were unified because they were misunderstood by civilians.

[BTW, this script holds up well and is still applicable even though it's 66 yrs. old!]

Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
by Robert E. Sherwood
From the novel by Mackinley Cantor

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #45 WGA Script of All Time - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

[Quick Summary: When a rebel is shipped to a super-oppressive psychiatric ward, he incites fellow patients to buck the establishment & take back some autonomy.]

My latest pet peeve in spec scripts are protagonists without goals.

"What if it's hard to describe the goal?" you might ask.  "Like Jack Nicholson in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'? What's his goal?"

Let's take a look.

This is a hard script to explain, much less summarize. 

Murphy, the main character, arrives and quickly learns he can't do squat. Everything is pre-measured. Every response is critiqued.

It's like a cult. The routine is dull and designed to strip all creative thought.

So what does Murphy want? His goal is to be able to make his own decisions. (That is so theoretical. Ugh.)

But what does Murphy do to get to his goal?
- He takes patients for a joy ride to go fishing.
- He includes an unlikely patient in a basketball game, and it becomes competitive for once.
- He challenges a nurse re: showing the World Series on the tv.

Hmmm...these are very concrete actions. Murphy pushes boundaries so he can have more freedom.

How do we measure if Murphy is moving toward his goal?  This is a comedy-tragedy, so Murphy actually loses ground. 

But his effect on the other patients is amazing.  They begin to act differently, respond differently than pre-Murphy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When a goal is hard to explain, at least create step-by-step scenes so we see the protagonist making progress toward it.

Here, decision-making is the goal. Murphy creates situations that allow him to exercise and expand his decision making abilities.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
by Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #46 WGA Script of All Time - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

[Quick Summary: When two greenhorns and an old timer find gold in the Mexican Sierra Madre mountains, greed pits them against each other.]

I liked reading back-to-back two Humphrey Bogart scripts. 

Both are strong, character driven scripts, which are as rare as bird's teeth today.  

These suckers are darn hard to write.  Not everyone knows how to write the characters' issues first, then the action second.

ex. This is one of the juiciest scenes (p. 55-58):

- The three men have just split up their hard earned gold dust. Each one hides his share somewhere near the campsite.  [No one trusts anyone.] 

- Dobbs gets paranoid the other two might find his stash.  He starts talking to himself, then vents suspicions at the other two.  [Dobbs (Bogart) has got VISIBLE trust issues.]

- One of the other men sees a gila monster scurry under a rock, and gets ready to kill it. Dobbs pulls out a gun on them. [Dobbs' mistrust causes him to jump to conclusions.]

- Dobbs accuses them of faking a gila monster, and the men realize this is Dobbs' hiding spot.
[What do you do with a raving maniac? Challenge his issue.]

- They dare Dobbs to retrieve his stash...but warn him that his hand might get bit by the gila. Does Dobbs believe their story, or protect his gold? [Dobbs must decide to trust or not.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Clear character issues make actions much easier to justify.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
by Robert Rossen

Sunday, January 1, 2012

TODAY'S NUGGET: #47 WGA Script of All Time - The Maltese Falcon (1941)

[Quick Summary: When a private investigator takes a case from a gorgeous client, he faces three thugs, two dead bodies, and a boatload of lies that surround a missing Maltese falcon.]

I've struggled for years to write suspense. 

But how to craft an artful punch-in-the-gut reveal?  I read several great ones in this script.

For example:

A) Sam Spade gets an early morning call to come to a crime scene. [He's a p.i. This is part of the job, you know?]

B) He looks down a hill at a dead body, but doesn't move closer. [Wow, wonder what happened to the deceased.]

C) Police tells Spade it was a single shot. Spade reconstructs what happened: "Miles goes back, taking the top of the fence..." [Wait a minute - Miles? Oh no! Not Miles, Spade's partner! How can Spade be so controlled?]

You see, the suspense here is built around Spade:

A) His non-reaction in here does not alert the audience. We think it's just part of the job.

B) He does not approach the body. This is also normal. Only later do we see why that's odd.

C) This is the first time we realize the likeable Miles has died. It's a shock for us, but Spade is just pragmatic, which is very consistent with his character.  We're just not prepared for HOW pragmatic he is.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For a good reveal, don't announce the reveal.

However, an unexpected (but in character) response works well.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
by John Huston
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