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