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
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