Monday, December 30, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Wyatt Earp (1994) - Why You Should Read Scripts

[Quick Summary:  The personal side of how Wyatt Earp became a feared Wild West lawman.]

Please don't be dense like me.

For years, I scoffed at the value of reading scripts.

"Read?! REAL writers WRITE. What could I learn from reading?"

I didn't care that every famous screenwriter said to do it.

It was optional, right? I believe the answer is no.

It takes time and is a pain, but it's the only way to teach how to tell a story.
An example from today's script: 

"DOC (impressed): Bat Masterson. You're the man that killed Sergeant King in Sweetwater?

Bat nods, not knowing Doc's feelings about the deceased.

DOC: Got you in the leg, I understand. My congratulations to you, sir. King was a skunk of the first order.

BIG NOSE KATE: I wish you'd got him before he shot poor Molly Brennan. She was a sweet girl.

This is a subject of real feeling for Bat, who loved the dead girl. Quietly --

BAT: Yes she was, ma'am...."
How do you interpret the bolded sentences above?

A new writer might think, "That's wrong.  Those sentences violate the "show, don't tell rule."

However, a seasoned writer who has read many scripts will realize:

- It's ok to violate the rule if it helps the story.
- These sentences are NOT telling.  They are describing REACTION SHOTS to the dialogue.  That is why it is so easy to visualize this story.

I was naive to think I could pick up these tricks of the trade by reading once in a blue moon.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Reading scripts is your continuing education.

I recommend setting a reading curriculum for yourself.

Don't stop learning.

Wyatt Earp (1994)
 by Lawrence Kasdan and Jake Kasdan 

Monday, December 23, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Bodyguard (1992) - Safe is Not Good

[Quick Summary: A bodyguard is hired to protect an actress, and inadvertently falls in love.]

This was Lawrence Kasdan's first screenplay.

I'd heard it was quite impressive.

To see for myself, I managed to finagle an original/early draft.

Did it live up to the hype? Yes.

Is it worth hunting down? Yes.  

Did I like it better than the shooting draft? Yes.

Why? Because it's riskier, ballsier, and the characters are allowed to be more flawed.

ex. Rachel Marron actively tries to make Frank pay for rejecting her.

ex. The bad guy's hijinks on the golf course involved a senator and two little boys. [Great suspense.]

I liked that characters had more regrets and no free passes.

In the shooting draft, I often felt it took an emotionally safer road.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Take more risks.

Safe is not good four letter word for stories.

The Bodyguard (1992; early draft, undated)
by Lawrence Kasdan

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Silverado (1985) - More fun

[Quick Summary: Four gunslingers descend on Silverado to right wrongs in intertwining stories.]

I liked this script very much.

Lawrence Kasdan might be my new "go to" guy for ensemble writing.

Two things to marvel at:

1)  The degree of writing difficulty that ensembles require.

ex. Last week's script  = 7 high school classmates who are reliving their common pasts in a confined crucible.

This week's script = 4 people whose 4 story lines cross over each other in real time.

2) It's never takes itself too seriously and is fun to read.

ex. "The three men ride hell-for-leather away from town. At the first bend they leave the road and head off cross-country their horses straining up craggy hillsides and sliding down dusty slopes. There is some good riding going on here." (italics mine)

I laughed at the last sentence.  It captures the tone perfectly.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Need more fun. Need more fun. Need more fun.

Silverado (1985)
by Lawrence Kasdan & Mark Kasdan

Monday, December 9, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Big Chill (1983) - Keep It Simple & Specific

[Quick Summary: A group of college buddies gather for the funeral of one of their own.]

I felt deeply when I read this script.

First, it's an amazing ensemble piece that juggles seven protagonists/antagonists.

Second, every story line felt so realistic and honest.

ex. "HAROLD: I want you to sit with Chloe.
HAROLD: I've got to be up there, and it's a little touchy with Alex's folks.
MICHAEL: I understand.

Harold gives him a "I knew you would" squeeze.

MICHAEL: Who's Chloe?

Harold gestures discreetly in Chloe's direction.

HAROLD: It's Alex's girlfriend.

Michael peers into the pews.

Harold indicates Chloe in the front row, which they have almonst reached. Michael is impressed, brightening at the sight of her. But when he speaks to Harold, he's all solicitous friend.

MICHAEL: I'll take care of her."

I think the keys are:
- The writing is simple (but not simplistic).
- The actions reflect very specific feelings (and not vague).

These put me inside the character...all seven of them.

Now that's a high level of skill.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Keep it Simple and Specific.

The Big Chill (1983)
by Lawrence Kasdan & Barbara Benedek

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Return of the Jedi (1983) - How to Introduce an Ewok

[Quick Summary: While the rebels disable the Death Star's shield on Endor, Luke faces Darth Vader.]

I'm a big Ewoks fan. (I can't believe some people are not.)

How would I have introduced such a new creature to a franchise?

I would've probably dived in with the physical description, i.e., "short, bear-like, cuddly."

However, the writers had a more effective way to draw the reader in.

They began with character actions, then physical attributes:


A strange little furry face with huge black eyes comes slowly into view. The creature is an EWOK, by the name of WICKET. He seems somewhat puzzled, and prods Leia with a spear. The princess groans; this frightens the stubby ball of fuzz and he prods her again. Leia sits up and stares at the three-foot-high Ewok."

Here's my short break down:

1 - Black eyes enter the screen [Not too much detail]
2 - He's puzzled [Now we're curious at his curiosity]
3 - He pokes Leia [Action and movement]
4 - He's frightened, but pokes again [We see his brave action]
5 - She wakes and sees a 3 ft. teddy bear [Finally the whole picture]

I liked that we didn't know the Ewok was 3 ft. until the end.

It's a surprise, and adds respect that such a short fellow would attempt the previous behavior.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  If possible, describe a character with behavior first.

Return of the Jedi (1983)
by Lawrence Kasdan & George Lucas

Monday, November 25, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Body Heat (1981) - I Didn't See the Twist Coming

[Quick Summary: After a lawyer falls for a smart, married blonde, their plot to kill her husband falls apart.]

I consider myself a master at anticipating twist(s).

It's a matter of pride that nothing escapes my eagle eye...

...except I DIDN'T see it coming in this script.

How did that happen?!

I won't reveal too much (the less you know, the better).

However, I will say that this script is really good because it doesn't try too hard to be clever, or fool the reader (as many new writers try to do).

Instead, it relies on a tale that's snags your emotions so much that you're not looking for any twist.

I was hooked as Racine fell for a girl, and ached in her absence.

I identified, invested, and rooted for this unlikely couple.

They were good together. They would defy the odds.

Then WHOMP! 

The twist arrived, unexpected, unwanted, full of backlash and back-peddling.  

I applaud the writer.  He fooled me, fair and square, and I left a satisfied reader.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I often pay too much attention to the 'twist' moment.

If I focus more on the setup, the twist will (ironically) be better. 

Body Heat (1981)
by Lawrence Kasdan

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Three Character Things I Learned

[Quick Summary: While the Empire hunts the Rebels, Luke Skywalker trains to be a Jedi.]

I didn't want to read this script.

I balked. I balked again. And again.

What could it teach me? (After all, I grew up on the original Star Wars et al.)

Alas, I was wrong to judge before reading. 

Here are 3 things I learned:

1 -  The battle and escape from Hoth take a long time (approx. p. 60+). 

On the up side, it reminded me to take my time establishing the stakes for the characters.

2 - Yoda is revealed in Luke's dawned look (action), and NOT dialogue.

ex. "Ben is focused on the creature. They ignore Luke for the moment. The boy is bewildered, but over the next few exchanges it dawns on him that the little creature is YODA, the Jedi Master."

3 - This story is interesting because it focuses on how people relate to each other.

ex. Han and Leia are attracted to each other, but are awkward together.
ex. Vader gives Luke the join-or-die choice, but Luke chooses door #3.
ex.  Luke calls out for does she hears him miles away?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I find this phrase vague and unhelpful: "It comes down to character." 

I do find this concrete and helpful: "Character is how people act, decide, and react."

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
by Leigh Brackett & Larry Kasdan
From the novel by George Lucas

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Kingdom of Heaven (2005) - Beware When Writing on an Epic Scale

[Quick Summary: A French blacksmith takes his father's role as defender of Jerusalem during the Crusades.]

Do you ever wonder what a draft from a seasoned writer looks like?

Written for director Ridley Scott, no less?

I do. (Yes, I have weird thoughts.)

So I read this draft, and pretended I was its writer.

How would I re-write it?

The good news is that this is a sprawling epic.  It's got great structure, visuals and tone.

The bad news is that this is a sprawling epic.  Often, they are so large that they are prone to lose a personal feel.

ex. Here, I couldn't follow Balian's (protagonist) arc.

He goes to Jerusalem to erase his and his wife's sins (hers by suicide).

But when he finally gets to Calvary, he gets little absolution...and the issue disappears.

I felt cheated.  Balian is tormented for pages...and then it is no longer a problem?!

Don't give me more fireworks - I want to know the personal stuff. How did he resolve his guilt?!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  When working on such a large scale, it's easy to overlook the small stuff.

Kingdom of Heaven - early draft (2005)
by William Monahan

Monday, November 4, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Casino Royale (2006) - Advancing the Bond Girl

[Quick Summary: In this franchise reboot, an early Bond battles the villainous Le Chiffre in a high stakes poker game.]

I wish a "Bond girl" could be Bond's equal.

I don't see it happening soon, though.

[I think it's part of the franchise that her major role is to be the decoy or arm candy.  'Tis a shame.]

However, the writers of this reboot did add something new.

Here, Vesper is a Treasury representative and the decoy/arm candy, AND she also a deep emotional impact on Bond that we've not seen before.

Her role is important and changes him:

"ex. James pulls on the jacket: damn if she isn't right. We thought he looked good in his last tux, he looks amazing in this one. And he sees the difference, and is amused that she actually showed him something....

He doesn't notice Vesper pause in the open bathroom doorway, catching him in the act."

I think this script evolved the Bond girl forward at least a step or two.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even with pre-set parameters for a Bond girl, it still is possible to deepen a character through relationships.

Casino Royale (2006)
by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis

Monday, October 28, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: In Bruges (2008) - Economy

[Quick Summary: After a hit goes awry, two Irish hitmen hide out in Bruges.]

What the hell does "economy in writing" MEAN?

I know what it looks like.

But no one can tell me how to do it...

...except to read many, many scripts.

I've figured out one thing:
ECONOMY = Every single scene is stuffed to the gills
                + Easy to read.  

For example, a scene from today's script:


CHLOE waiting, DESK CONSTABLE doodling. She stands, excited as RAY is released.

RAY: I'll get the money back to you as soon as I get through to my friend...
CHLOE: It's not a problem, Raymond.
RAY: And I'll get all your acid and ecstasy back to you too...

The DESK CONSTABLE looks up.

CHLOE (in Flemish, subtitled): English humour!

She quickly leads him out."

This is a very short scene, but it's chock full of progress:

- Ray finally makes a promise about the future ("I'll get the money back to you...")
- His character remains consistent (he still shows poor judgment by taking the acid).
- If you read between the lines, he has bonded with Chloe.
- She's willing to cover for him. They're a team now.
- Something good has happened to Ray. There's hope.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Economy is packing scenes full AND they are easy to read.

The reader gets the literal meaning, as well as the inferred meaning (also know as "allowing the audience to put 2+2 together.")

In Bruges (2008)
by Martin McDonagh

Monday, October 21, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Klute (1971) - "It Can't Be Just About Sex"

[Quick Summary: A small town detective has only one clue to find a missing friend: a city prostitute.]  

Most scripts today have too much sex and/or badly written sex in them.

The result is gratuitous sex scenes that feel hollow...

...or (even worse) bore the reader.

Why is this so?

Many scripts fail to heed the rule: 
"...[I]t can't be just about sex.  If there's more sex going on, something else must be going on as well. So use the act to illustrate the action." (p. 188) 

So before writing a sex scene, I recommend:

1.  Closely reading Billy Mernit's chapter "Being Sexy.

The rules for a rom-com couples apply to all couples.

2.  Reading (and re-reading) Klute, one of the sexiest thrillers I've read.

This script has less nudity than today's scripts, but it's sexier.

Klute is a detective who is trying to find his missing friend. 

Bree is a jaded prostitute who last saw the friend.  She uses sex as a defense [the 'something else going on.']

When Bree finally beds Klute, it's a haunting, soulless act.

The sexual dynamic has a purpose:
-  Klute reveals a tender side to Bree.
-  Bree reveals an emptiness to Klute.
-  It also sets their relationship up for the rest of the film.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For couples to work, it's can't be just about sex.

Klute (1971)
by Andy Lewis and David E. Lewis

Monday, October 14, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Pride & Prejudice (2005) - Getting Out of a Riposte

[Quick Summary: Lizzie Bennet is pride; Mr. Darcy is prejudice. They fall in love.]

I love verbal riposte between characters.

The thrust (Beat #1) and parry (Beat #2) are fun to write.

But what about Beat #3?  (It's my downfall.)

How do you get out of the riposte, and land on a good Beat #3?

Let's take a look at several examples in this stellar script:

Ex. MRS. BENNET: How can you tease me, Mr. Bennet? Have you no compassion for my poor nerves?
MR. BENNET: You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for them; they have been my constant companions these twenty years.
MRS. BENNET: Is he amiable? [She takes a different angle.

Ex. CHARLOTTE: That is his good friend, Mr. Darcy.
LIZZIE: He looks miserable, poor soul.
CHARLOTTE: Miserable he may be, but poor he most certainly is not.
LIZZIE: Tell me. [Her appetite increases for more info.]

- DARCY: I thought that poetry was the food of love.
LIZZIE: Of a fine, stout love it may. But if it is only a vague inclination, I am convinced that one poor sonnet will kill it stone dead.
DARCY: So what do you recommend, to encourage affection? [He throws out a dare.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To land Beat #3, try 
- Taking the conversation in a different direction.
- Baiting the character.
- Taking the fight to a more personal level.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)
by Deborah Moggach
Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen

Monday, October 7, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - Episodic = Usually a Bad Idea

[Quick Summary: An examination of the private Sherlock Holmes.]

This film was meant to be two films with an intermission (3 hrs., 2 min.)*:

It's a long story because it's made up of a series of episodes**:

- Holmes investigates several unrelated cases. 
- Each case illuminates an unknown facet of Holmes.
- All these facets are combined in the last case.

Episodes are generally a no-no because they break up the narrative flow, i.e., too much stop-start-stop-start.

The rule applies here.

I lost track of the overall story after the second episode.

I got bored waiting for the last (and best) episode. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Avoid episodes at all costs.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

* The final film was severely truncated (1 hr., 53 min.)
** Episodes = Separate, tenuously related stories

Monday, September 30, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Unfaithfully Yours (1948) - One Way to Visually Move From Reality to Fantasy

[Quick Summary: A conductor suspects his wife is unfaithful.]

Once upon a time, I heard a writer I admire say the mark of a pro is his/her transitions.

What the hell does that mean?!

I finally discovered transitions aren't just at the ends of scenes. 

They encompass the whole flow in a script:
- getting in and out
- moving in and out of closeups
- switching locations, etc.

In this script, let's examine 2 transitions:

[Note: I know these are long. Sturges wrote for himself to direct.]

ex. "Now after a pause the CAMERA PUSHES IN until his eyes, eyebrows and nose fill the screen. After this we PUSH IN still closer until one eye fills the screen and finally so close that the pupil of one eye, which is to say blackness, fills the screen. Now that we are in Sir Alfred's mind, a very, very slow FADE IN begins and we find ourselves in Sir Alfred's study on a CLOSEUP of the antique village orchestra clock."

ex. "TRICK SHOT ON SIR ALFRED. We go into his mind again...(it might be interesting at some point to see the whole orchestra from the conductor's viewpoint reflected on something black and shiny, then PULL BACK and see it is the pupil of the conductor's eye)."

Sturges move us from reality to fantasy with just visuals:

- Alfred's face is described in closer and closer detail.
- Then the next scene is at regular distance.
- The audience understands this close--> closer--> farther sequencing as going into a man's head for a fantasy or flashback.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  It's refreshing to see how clean the reality-to-fantasy visuals are here. 

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
by Preston Sturges

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Great Moment (1944) - Breaking a Biopic Rule

[Quick Summary: The true story of the first dentist to successfully use ether, which results in both success and villification.]

Did you know Preston Sturges wrote a biopic?

Me either.

As always, Sturges doesn't follow the rule, he breaks them.

Notice the non-chronological sequencing to this biopic:*

A - Present day. Dr. Morton's destitute widow tells how her husband died with a broken heart.
B - In the recent past, Dr. Morton loses business to competitors.
C - In the further past, Dr. Morton loses a $100k award to red tape.
D - In the far past, Dr. and Mrs. Morton struggle in a young marriage.
E - Young Morton experiments with ether.
F - Morton coins the term "letheon" for his secret ingredient.
G - Morton convinces a medical professor to try his "letheon" in a live demonstration.
H - Letheon is extremely successful during surgery.
J - The medical community demands to know what letheon is. Morton finally admits it is simple ether.  They take his findings, but do not appreciate Morton's work.

Why does it work here?

Usually, biopics follow a chronological approach.

The purpose of this general rule is to help build momentum.
ex. Girl is young but brash --> Faces trouble --> She learns lesson at climax
Here, Sturges found another way to group together scenes that would still build momentum.
ex. #A-D gains our sympathy. 
#E-G shows Morton's uphill battle. 
Then #H-J punches us with success, then the sharp unfairness of it all.
WHAT I'VE LEARNED: 1) Know the purpose of the general rule; 2) Go ahead & break it; 3) See if the story still works.

The Great Moment (1944)
by Preston Sturges

* I find it fascinating that Sturges (and/or the studio at the time) breaks down every script into sequences A through J or K. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) - Anti-Hero in a Farce

[Quick Summary: A discharged marine gets a rousing, but undeserved, homecoming.]

Some call this Sturges' finest work, and I agree.

The script is remarkable because it fools you at first.

On a first read, I thought that Woodrow should not be the protagonist:
- Woodrow is very, very, very reluctant to go home. (He's an anti-hero.)
- But he's dragged home by marine buddies.  (Does he have a goal?)
- He gets an undeserved hero's welcome. (Things happen to him.)

But I was wrong.


This script has an unusual and complex combination of an ANTI-HERO in a FARCE:

1 - As an anti-hero, Woodrow is very, very, very reluctant to take pro-active action.  He seems to react rather than act.

ex.  Woodrow befriends marines at a bar, far from home.
He wants to go home but can't. [Reluctance]
The marines learn he pretended to mom that he's still enlisted.
The marines insist he go home and accompany him. [Reacts]

2 -  But look closely -- He does take steps toward a goal (telling mom).

However, he is swimming against a tsunami of farce.

Farce requires extreme exaggeration.  

In other words, our attention is on the ridiculous town folk with agendas (antagonists) rather than Woodrow:

ex. Woodrow tries to bolt from the train. The marines shove him into uniform and medals.

ex. Woodrow's mother wants him to wear his (borrowed) uniform to church. He balks and wears a suit.

ex. Political hacks put Woodrow up for mayor. He tries to decline. They call him modest. 

Note that all the action is ALWAYS around Woodrow, whether or not he is on screen (which is why he IS the protagonist.)

What great craftmanship!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Farce can emphasize the protagonist's journey (even an anti-hero).

Hail the Conquering Hero (1944)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, September 9, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) - When I Don't Like a Script

[Quick Summary: Unintended consequences results when a young woman persuades a milk toast friend to marry her.]

Between you, me, and the lamp post, I didn't like the last script.

Nor this one either.

I used to rush on to the next good script.

But over time, I've made it a rule to take the time to analyze:

1) Why the script didn't work for me
2) One good take-away for my writing tool box

Why this script didn't work for me:
- It's very talky, without enough movement. 
- Trudy always takes advantage of Norval, even to the point of a fake marriage.
- I didn't want this couple to be together. Where's the rooting interest?

One good writing tool: Reveal coverups in the last 25% of the scene.
 - ex.  Norval pretends to be Trudy's army fiancee before the justice of the peace (coverup).  They are married (75%), then Norval signs the wrong name (25%).
- The script takes its time to stretch the coverup.  The reveal isn't too soon.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When I don't like a script, I still need to push myself to figure out what does and does not work.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, September 2, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Palm Beach Story (1942) - Funny Character Names

[Quick Summary: A wife runs away so her husband won't suffer financial ruin, but he chases after her.]

[NOTE: The next two chronological scripts are reviewed here: Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels.]

Sturges uses funny names.

I can't stop thinking about:

- Mr. McKeewie
- The Weenie King
- John D. Hackensacker III
- Snoodles
- Captain McGlue

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Weird names are memorable.

The Palm Beach Story (1942)
by Preston Sturges

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Christmas in July (1940) - Ironic Hijinks

[Quick Summary: A man wins a slogan competition, which causes misunderstandings and havoc.]

Bad news: This is not my favorite Sturges script. 

Good news: Sturges does write better ironic hijinks than most.

ex. The protagonist gets a telegram at work announcing that he's won a $25,000 coffee slogan competition.

He calls his mother and promises the world. [Ups the personal ante.]

The whole office cheers the good news. [Ups the professional ante.]

His co-workers Tom, Dick, and Harry laugh because they have faked the telegram. [Ups tension.]

The boss comes in to scold.  [Uh-oh.]

Tom, Dick, and Harry sweat as they see their joke go out of control.. [What will happen?]

The boss is so impressed by the win that he offers protagonist a bigger job. [More tension.]

Tom, Dick, and Harry try to confess, and are unable to. [Cliffhanger]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You can see how Sturges is in control.

The hijinks serve his irony (rather than hey-what-story-can-we-fit-around-this-joke).

Christmas in July (1940)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, August 19, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Great McGinty (1940) - How to Convey a "Message" Using Irony

[Quick Summary: A bum who becomes a corrupt governor learns his lessons too late.]

The Great McGinty has a message about danger in politics.

Boring, right?

Actually, no. 

The script's irony is so entertaining that I hardly realized there was a message.

ex. McGinty votes for a candidate in exchange for $2/vote.

1 - A predictable setup = We think we know where it's going.


He stands, watch in hand, talking indignantly to the cop outside.

POLITICIAN: Well, I ain't goin' to wait here all night...I got a right to eat, ain't I? The guy's had time to vote ten times! I'm goin' to eat. If you see him, you tell him I got somethin' better to do than...

McGINTY'S VOICE: Than what? ...."

2 - The payoff is exaggerated. Who expected five tickets?

"McGinty comes in, reaches into his right pants pocket and chucks five tickets on the table.

POLITICIAN (counting them with his hand): From the time you took anybody's think...."

3 - The 2nd payoff is hugely exaggerated.  This results in the opposite of what we expected (irony).

From his left pants pocket McGinty throws ten more tickets on the table. This stops the Politician right in the middle of his sentence. He watches goggle-eyed as McGinty throws ten more from his right coat pocket. He watches stupefied as McGinty extracts another ten from his left coat pocket.

POLITICIAN (in an awe-struck voice): Is that all?

McGINTY: Wait a minute. (He pulls two more tickets from his breast pocket) That's it.

POLITICIAN (muttering to himself as he counts the tickets): Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven...sixty-four bucks!

McGINTY: Seventy-four bucks."

4 - The message? People will find ways around the system. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For an ironic twist, exaggerate, then exaggerate even bigger. 

The Great McGinty (1940)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, August 12, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Remember the Night (1940) - Minor Characters Aren't Small Parts

[Quick Summary: A prosecutor takes a female defendant to his hometown during Christmas break.]

You should know (if you didn't already):

1) Sturges writes brilliant minor characters. 
2) He doesn't waste any of them.

 ex. After the prosecutor (Sargent) sleeps in a field, he's brought to a judge for trespassing.

"SARGENT (very amiably): Good morning, Your Honor, I'm afraid there's been a little misunderstanding here all around. This gentleman... (He indicates the owner).....found my car parked in his field and naturally came to the conclusion.....

THE JUSTICE (interrupting): What's the charge, Hank?

THE OWNER: Trespass on posted property, wanton destruction of fence and petty larceny.

SARGENT (indignantly): That's a ga....

THE JUSTICE (interrupting): What'd they steal?

THE OWNER: They were milking one of my cows when I caught them."

Note how funny and well-rounded they are:
- The judge interrupts with confidence. He's in charge here.
- The owner isn't afraid to speak up. He's a complaining comic relief.

Also note how they move the story forward:
-  The judge treats Sargent (who is a lawyer) as a potential criminal.  He turns Sargent's world upside down.
-  The owner's accusations push Sargent and the defendant closer and work as a team.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I often forget to fully flesh out minor characters.  No more.

Remember the Night (1940)
by Preston Sturges

Monday, August 5, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Easy Living (1937) - Screwball Speed Lies in Cause-Effect

[Quick Summary: A fur coat hits young woman, which begins her romance comedy.]

I love screwball comedies for their speed and slapstick.

But how do writers also keep it funny?

Sturges used this cause-effect combination in this script:

Fast actions in one room ----> Leads to unexpected, funny effects in the another room

ex. Mary can't afford a meat pie from the Automat, a vending machine.

The busboy Johnny sneaks her one, but is caught by the house detective:

"JOHNNY AND THE DICK - ON THE FLOOR . They are nearly buried in knives, forks, coffee pots, and crockery, fighting vigorously. The dick tries to get to his feet and in grasping for something, his hand pulls a lever.  [Cause: A fight in the kitchen]

A COUPLE OF BUMS STANDING AT THE TOOTHPICK TABLE. Behind them stretches a long vista of food compartments. With a loud click all the doors in view fly open and remain open, vibrating slightly. The first bum turns his head, then clutches the second bum and points excitedly.

THE FIRST BUM: Horace!  [Effect: Free food in the dining room]

THE DICK AND JOHNNY WRESTLING - IN THE DEBRIS. The dick's feet tangle up in a couple more levers. [Cause: More fighting]

THE BEVERAGE PANEL. Simultaneously, tea, steaming coffee, milk, grape juice and orange juice start hissing their way into the world. From a large spigot next to them blobs of ice cream come plunking out." [Effect: Geyser of drinks and dessert]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The strong cause-effect makes the slapstick read faster. 

[I imagine Sturges started building the cause-effect first, then laid over the slapstick.]

Easy Living (1937)
by Preston Sturges
Adapted from the story by Vera Caspary

Monday, July 29, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Power & the Glory (1933) - Getting What You (Don't) Want, i.e., Irony

[Quick summary: A railroad baron's happiest and saddest moments are told in flashback.]

I feel dumb.  When I feel dumb, I read.
I felt dumb recently when someone praised writer/director Preston Sturges (1898-1959).  I knew so little.  Exactly why was he so great?

So begins my education of Sturges with this early script.

It is impressive.*

I particularly liked how Sturges uses irony to punch home a point.

Here's how he built one scene:

1 - The stakes are set up clearly.

Eve, the mistress, gives lovesick Tom an ultimatum.

[To have Eve, Tom must discard Sally.]

2 - The protagonist faces a decision, and a complication.

Sally, the wife, tells Tom that she wants to reconnect with a trip to Europe together. Tom confesses he's in love with Eve.

Guilty, he foreswears Eve, and agrees to go to Europe.

Sally abruptly tells him to go with Eve, have fun, and live it up.

She says, "I hope she makes you happier than I did," and walks out.

[Sally is a roadblock for Tom.  We expect her to fight for their marriage, but she does the unexpected and makes it so easy for him.]

3 - The protagonist "got what he wished for"...but the grass isn't as green as he thought.  

Sally commits suicide.

[It is ironic because Tom got what he wanted (Eve) and not what he wanted (guilt). The irony in #3 underscores his bad decision in #1. ]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Tom chose Eve, confident that she was the better outcome, but she wasn't.  That's irony.

The Power & the Glory (1933)
by Preston Sturges

*A few striking facts about this script:

- It was Preston Sturges' first original spec.
- It was shot without changes.
- It launched him as a serious screenwriter (despite poor box office).
- It convinced him to become a director (he didn't direct this one).
- Its "fractured narrative" and constant voice over was revolutionary.
- It heavily influenced Citizen Kane.

Monday, July 22, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Sense & Sensibility (1995) - Examples of Silence at Work

[Quick Summary: In 1790s, two witty, poor sisters find hard-won love.]

Producer Lindsay Doran writes eloquently about looking for a Sense and Sensibility writer for TEN YEARS:
"Everything I'd looked at seemed so dry and polite - the romantic scripts weren't funny enough, the funny scripts weren't romantic enough, the attempts to write in the voice of the eighteenth century felt stilted and dull. I was beginning to think that what I was looking for didn't exist."
After working with Emma Thompson, Doran offered her the gig:
"She not only knew how to think in Jane Austen's language, but she understood the rhythms of good scene writing and how to convey a sense of setting....Her experience as an actress ...helped her to understand when silence could say more than any spoken word." (emphasis mine) 
I like how the script uses silence:

Ex. 1 - It can build anticipation.

"[The Stranger] turns to Marianne and smiles. She smiles back gloriously. He bows, and sweeps out of the room.

MARIANNE (hissing): His name! His name!"

Ex. 2 -  It can also convey sorrow.

"Sir John eyes Brandon roguishly.

SIR JOHN: You know what they're saying, of course...

No answer.

SIR JOHN: The word is that you have developed a taste for - certain company.

Brandon stays resolutely silent. Sir John is emboldened.

SIR JOHN: And why not, say I. a man like you - in his prime - she'd be a most fortunate young lady -

Brandon cuts across him.

COL. BRANDON: Marianne Dashwood would no more think of me than she would of you, John."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Silence forced me to connect the dots.

I didn't realize:
1) how versatile it is, and
2) how it involves the audience.

Sense & Sensibility (1995)
by Emma Thompson
From the novel by Jane Austen

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Adam's Rib (1949) - I Want MORE ROMANCE

[Quick Summary: Two married lawyers take opposite sides in a wife-shoots-husband case.]

I'm here to stump for more romantic comedies.  (Where have they gone? )

I'm a die hard fan, but recent films have turned me off.

My biggest issue is a lack of...well, romance.

Billy Mernit explains it this way in his Romantic Truism #1:

The primary challenge lies not in creating obstacles to keep the couple apart, but in convincing the audience that these two people truly do belong together.

I need to believe these two are better together than apart.

And I did believe it when reading Adam's Rib.

*spoilers below*

ex. Adam is smart. Amanda is witty. They enjoy each other immensely at home.

In the courtroom, Amanda is on fire. Adam shows some fine lawyering.

Amanda finally wins. Adam storms off.

They can't reconcile their legal positions, which affects them personally.

By this time, however, I was rooting for them. When Kip the neighbor put the moves on Amanda, it drove the point home.

Kip wanted to be her doormat, but that didn't help her.

She was far happier fighting with Adam.

That says romantic to me.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Romance is two people who make each other better.

Adam's Rib (1949)
by Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin

* It is the rare rom-com with 100% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: A Knight's Tale (2001) - A Funny Scene of Writing a Love Note

[Quick Summary: A peasant sneaks into the nobles-only jousting circuit.]

This is a solid script.
From The Canterbury Tales it is ripped.

This was my favorite scene.
Funny and vulnerable, see what I mean?

(William's friends give him heat,
Which makes his efforts all so sweet.)

"William strides in with purpose. He holds a ROSE.

CHAUCER: Yes sire!
WILLIAM: I need to write a letter.
CHAUCER: Alright...To who?
WILLIAM: Jocelyn. Make it, Dear Jocelyn. Then put in a bit about her beauty, how her eyes are amazing and then a poem or two.
CHAUCER: A love letter then?
ROLAND: No, a bill for lodgings and beer!
WILLIAM: Finish it with a bit to bring a tear and melt her heart, alright?
CHAUCER: No. I won't. Not a love letter.

Chaucer goes back to his notes leaving William incredulous.

WILLIAM: Why not?
CHAUCER: Because. Your love letter must come from your heart, not mine.
WAT: William. If you like, I'll kick master Geoff until he agrees.
CHAUCER: Kick me, fong me, I won't do it.
WILLIAM: Fine. I'll do it. Will you scribble it for me at least?
CHAUCER: Certainly.

William sets a clean piece of parchment in front of him.

CHAUCER: On parchment?
WILLIAM: What else?
CHAUCER: Vellum. Parchment is for edicts, decrees and death warrants. Vellum is for bibles, pardons and love letters. Scented of course. I have one sheet.
WILLIAM: Good. Vellum. My dearest Jocelyn...I miss you.

Chaucer frowns, but dips his pen and prepares to write.

WILLIAM: Hold! Is that wrong?
CHAUCER: Your letter. It's up to you.

Desperate not to make a mistake, William looks to the others. Wat and Roland both shrug.

WAT: Say something about her breasts.
ROLAND: Yes, you miss her breasts.
CHAUCER: Look above her breasts, William
WILLIAM: I miss her throat?
CHAUCER: Higher! To the heavens.
KATE: The moon at least. Her breasts were not that impressive.
WILLIAM: The moon. Hmm...It is strange to think...I haven't seen you since a month. I have seen the new moon...but not you.  I have seen sunsets and sunrises, but nothing of your beautiful face.

He looks to them. They're stunned. Finally:

CHAUCER: Very good, William."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  William's discomfort is funny
+ Willingness to put forth his emotions is romantic
= Funny AND romantic AND moves the story forward.

A Knight's Tale (2001)
Written & directed by Brian Helgeland

Monday, July 1, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) - Foreshadowing & Unease

[Quick Summary: A barber lies after a man dies, and it all goes to hell, as noir films do.]

This is a good script, but not a favorite.

I did like how it visually foreshadows unease (essential for noir).

ex. "Ed gets into bed next to Doris. He stares at the ceiling. Wind rustles outside.

The shadow of a branch on the ceiling nods in time with the wind.

He looks at Doris....her breathing more peaceful. The leafy shadows play over her face." (p. 38-39)

The shadows over her face are foreboding.

Everything is still for one moment, and Ed is holding his breath.

(And sure enough in the very next scene, the other shoe drops hard.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Take advantage of a moment of quiet and unease in Scene A.

It will help build tension and contrast when chaos erupts in Scene B.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Limitless (2011) - Two Conflict Texture

[Quick Summary: After a day-trader gets hooked on a mind-enhancing drug, thugs and his boss come after him.]

Bad news - I so wanted to like this script.

But I wasn't keen on it, despite that there's solid writing and premise. 

Good news - I did enjoy the double conflict scene on p. 16-17.

Eddie has just swallowed his first pill. 

He encounters the ranting landlord's wife just as the pill kicks in. 

There are 2 things happening at once:
 1) Eddie grapples with new physical effects from the chemicals (internal conflict)
 2) He has to disarm the shouting wife (external conflict)

Here's how the writer described it:

"The room is changing...springing into sharper focus.

EDDIE (V.O.): Everything had more definition...more dimensions...

There seems to be a little more light, too --he can see more clearly. The SOUND drops out for a moment; he can see VALERIE'S FACE, mouth contorted, continuing to heap the abuse, but there's something in her eyes that's not mean...something anxious.

EDDIE (V.O.): "I was blind, but now I see."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Two conflicts at once has a different texture than one.

As a writer, you need to know which texture will work the best.

Sometimes you need two. Sometimes you only need one.

Limitless (2011)
by Leslie Dixon
Based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn

Monday, June 17, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) - Allowing the Reader to Add 2 + 2

[Quick Summary: A marked hitman reunites with his first love at their high school reunion.]

I love it when scripts allow the reader put 2 + 2 together.

(Pssssssssstttttt! It's also called "show not tell.")

Here's a great example in the introduction of Martin, the protagonist:

[The italics are my reactions to the script as I read it.]

- Camera focuses on a golf ball. [We're on a golf course.]
- We see yellow trousers. [This is a man.]
- He chips the ball into a hole. [He can play golf.]
- Hands clean the iron's face. [He's knows about golf.]
- "Both hands are gloved, instead of one, and the gloves are black." [WHOA. Wait a minute. Why are his gloves black and not white? Hitmen wear black gloves. Ah ha! He's a hitman.]

Note how the writers led me through the logical process.
1) They laid out the clues
2) The clues were bite sized, so that the reader could jump to the desired conclusion
3) They let me connect the dots

I loved that they trusted the reader to make those leaps.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's tough to fashion the right sized clue.

If it's too esoteric, the reader won't make the connection.

If it's too patently apparent, the reader feels insulted.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
by D.V. deVincentis, S.K. Boatman, & John Cusak

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) - Outlandish Dialogue Needs _______

[Quick Summary: A thief and a p.i. witness witness a female body being dumped, which leads to an unruly L.A. mystery.] 

I really liked this script because Harry (thief) is a first rate raconteur.

His dialogue is fast, off the seat of the pants, and effective. It gets him out of the most absurd situations.  

I just couldn't stop reading, so why does it work so well? 

One reason may be the scene structure, i.e.,  solid setups and payoffs.  

The dialogue can be extreme and outlandish AS LONG AS the structure holds it together:

ex. Harry and his partner rob a toy store. His partner is shot and killed.
- Harry runs and is wounded. [Setup is that Harry is running scared]
- He runs into a building and opens a random door to a casting call.
- Sweaty and bloody, he is still picked for the next audition. [Twist]
- He goes along with it because a cop is searching the building. [Increased stakes]
- The audition scene is a confrontation between the police and a killer (Harry). [Callback to when Harry's partner was shot.]
- Harry reads the lines, which could easily be his own confession. He falls apart. [Payoff]
- Harry is so convincing that he is hired. [Payoff of dialogue being so great] 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Always, always, always structure first.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
by Shane Black  

Monday, June 3, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Donnie Brasco (1997) - Applause for a "Passive" Protagonist

[Quick Summary: In the 1970s, an undercover FBI agent seems to like mobster life than his real life.]

I loved how this script turns the definition of "active protagonist" on its head.

Donnie Brasco is one of the first undercover FBI agents in the NY mob.

His job is to gather intelligence and set out bait...and then wait for the prey to bite.

So on the surface, Donnie often LOOKS passive.

ex. At their first meeting, Donnie lets Lefty approach first.
ex. Donnie offers to help facilitate mob deals, but never initiates.

It's only later, however, that we realize this is Donnie's plan.

He is actually quite active behind the scenes.

ex. Donnie lets Lefty scold and teach him.  Lefty thinks he's in control.

ex. Donnie sets up a mole in the Florida mafia. He maneuvers Lefty into a meeting with the Florida mob. Lefty believes he is the Big Man.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Donnie's casual passivity disguises his activity.

This is how a good writer follows (and breaks) the rules.

Donnie Brasco (1997)
by Paul Attanasio
Based on the book, "Donnie Brasco," by Joseph D. Pistone with Richard Woodley

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Birds (1963) - The "Cute Meet" Feeling

[Quick Summary: After a San Francisco socialite follows a man to a seaside town, she is attacked by birds.]

The Birds is horror, right?

I ask because it has a GOOD "cute meet" rom-com scene at the beginning:

- Melanie, the spoiled socialite, is in a pet store buying a bird.

- Mitch, a stranger, asks for her help.

- Melanie is annoyed he thinks she is a clerk, but she plays along.

- He asks to see a bird. She pretends to know what she's doing. A bird gets loose. Chaos.

- Mitch pulls the rug from under Melanie.

- He walks off, and leaves her hanging.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: What sparks! What romance!  I longed for them to be together.

This is how a "cute meet" should leave us feeling. 

The Birds (1963)
by Evan Hunter
Based on the novel "Birds" by Daphne Du Maurier

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Vertigo (1958) - How to Twist in (Late) Act 2

[Quick Summary: A detective-turned-p.i., is hired to follow a wife who is reliving a family curse.]

A few days ago, I watched a recent thriller with a late Act 2 twist.

The twist was a humdinger (fine) and unbelievably crazy (ok by me).

Unfortunately, it was barely based in character, and seemed to be tacked on as a shocker.  THAT was unacceptable.

So how did Hitchcock set up a late Act 2 twist?  Let's check out Vertigo:

Madeline (the wife) dies about 2/3 in the script.

(This is not a surprise.  She's obsessed over Carlotta's death, look, grave, etc.)

The twist has several steps:
- Madeline dies.
- Scottie (the p.i.) is brokenhearted, but one day he sees Judy in Madeline's old room. [This keeps Madeline alive.]
- Scottie confronts Judy, and learns she has been living there for 3 years. [The Madeline mystery deepens, though she's dead.]
- Scottie begins to date Judy. [Is Scottie moving on?]
- Judy isn't who we think she is. [Scottie is in for a stun in Act 3.]

Why this works:
-  Acts 1-2 established Madeline's mysterious behaviors.  Late Act 2-3 clarifies them through Judy.
- The twist reveals Madeline's CHARACTER. This is no time for a plot point just to include a cool CGI effect.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: A good late twist reveals more character.

A bad late twist is often more about the twist than the character.

Vertigo (1958)
by Alec Coppel & Samuel Taylor
Based on the novel "d'Entre les Morts" by Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) - Location, Location, Location

[Quick Summary: An innocent mistake pulls a tourist into an international assassination plot.]

As far as Hitchcock scripts go, this wasn't my favorite.

But I would like to mention the ballsy choice of set pieces:

- French Morocco
- Savoy's Hotel
- taxidermist shop
- Royal Albert Hall
- Moroccan embassy

Hitchcock plays with the audience's expectations of these locations.

When unexpected things happen in dignified locations, it's quite a startling contrast.

ex. Jimmy Stewart tracks the a taxidermy shop (?!)
ex. Jimmy then finds the head conspirator...preaching in a pulpit (?!!)
ex. Doris Day sings at the Moroccan embassy while her son is captive upstairs.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The locations impacted me more subconsciously than I'd realized.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
by John Michael Hayes

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: To Catch a Thief (1955) - When Sparks Fly

[Quick Summary: A retired cat thief is framed for burglaries he didn't commit.]

The One Thing I Liked the Least:
 - The script takes a long time to get going.

The One Thing I Liked the Most:
- Francie is a strong lead who pins Robie from the very beginning.

She knows what she wants + invites interaction with Robie = Romantic fireworks

ex. "I've been waiting all day for you to mention that kiss I gave you last night."
ex.  "The kind of man I want doesn't have a price."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Francie takes no prisoners, and Robie bobs and weaves like a champ. They're equally matched, i.e., sparks fly.

FYI: The Francie-Robie exchange on p. 51-52 is a good read.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

by John Michael Hayes

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Strangers on a Train (1950) - One Reason to Drop a Plot Line from a Book

[Quick Summary: On a train, a man with a problematic wife meets a stranger who offers to kill the wife -- if the man will kill the stranger's father.]

In the book, Guy meets a stranger on a train called Bruno.

Bruno agrees to kill Guy's wife, and Guy will kill Bruno's father.

However, in the script, Guy refuses, but Bruno kills Guy's wife anyway.

For the rest of the story, Bruno insists that Guy hold up his end of the "agreement."

Why doesn't the script include the double murder?

I'm not sure, but only one murder does dial up the psychological pressure on Guy.

ex. Bruno feels justified about invading Guy's social circle to drop hints.

ex. Guy cannot tell the police, so Bruno has eternal leverage over Guy.

ex. Bruno needs Guy to act immediately, which increases the urgency.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Hitchcock seems to have favored more tension here over a second murder plot line.

Strangers on a Train (1950)
by Raymond Chandler & Czenzi Ormonde
Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Saboteur (1942) - Hitchcock's Bombs & the Shift of Power

[Quick Summary: Barry, an aircraft laborer, is accused of sabotage, and uncovers a conspiracy.]

This is my two cents: The script starts out strong, then wanders

...and wanders...

...and wanders.

However, it was nice to see examples of Hitchcock's famous formula for suspense, i.e., "the audience knows there's a bomb under the table."

Ex. 1:  Barry confronts the shady lawyer, Mr. Tobin, at home.

When Tobin is away, his granddaughter toddles over to Barry.

She innocently hands him a dropped telegram.  It is from the real saboteur to Mr. Tobin. [This is the bomb.]

Tobin returns. [Will the bomb go off?

Tobin calls Barry out for reading the telegram, and his thugs corner Barry. [Bomb is released.]

Ex. 2: The cornered Barry picks up the granddaughter. [Another bomb.]

He uses her as a shield to escape. [Will the bomb go off?]

He puts her down and gets away. [Bomb goes off.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  A bomb is interesting to watch because it often benefits one side over the other (Ex. 1 above).

After it is released, the story is at a new level, usually because there's a mad scramble to  re-shift the power back (Ex. 2 above).

Saboteur (1942)
by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, & Dorothy Parker

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Silver Linings Playbook (2012) - How I Knew Pat & Tiffany Were "Meant to Be"

[Quick Summary: Recently released from a psychiatric hospital, Pat recoups with an unlikely ally.]

There is one line that made see that Pat and Tiffany should be together.

First, let me set the scene:

At the diner, Pat eats cereal. Tiffany has tea. 

Pat is prohibited from contacting his ex-wife Nikki. Tiffany offers to deliver a note to her for him.

Pat is about to bolt out the door to write the letter... and Tiffany stops him with, "Can I at least finish my tea?"  He then remembers his manners.

After that one line, I knew that Tiffany was good for Pat.

She did what no one else was able to do - she got him outside his self-absorbed box.

She got him to socialize again in a healthy way.

That's a subtle, but definite "meant to be" in my book.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I like it when characters fit together well.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
by David O. Russell
Based on the novel by Matthew Quick

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Lincoln (2012) - Moments of Humor

[Quick Summary: President pulls out all the stops for the last 20 votes to pass the 13th Amendment.]

Lincoln reads like a Very Big and Important film.

I did not like the big speeches.

I did like the small touches of humor.  Each incident made Lincoln more real.

ex. Lincoln tells a joke no one gets.
ex. Two soldiers are star struck in front of Lincoln.
ex. Lincoln and Mary have a nasty drag-up-old-wounds argument.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Moments of humor can really round out a "bigger than life" character.

Lincoln (2012)
by Tony Kushner

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Life of Pi (2012) - Adapting the Intangible

[Quick Summary: A 16 yr. old Indian boy is shipwrecked in the Atlantic with a wild tiger.]

First, a tip of the hat to screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013), who passed today.

For 40 years, she collaborated with the Merchant-Ivory team, including the Oscar winning adaptions of Howards End, and Room With a View

I wonder how she approached adapting books.

Is there a method to crafting a narrative for film?

I pondered that question as I read today's script, Life of Pi.

It is a sprawling 356 page discussion of faith. How do you show intangible concepts?

Here, the writer did a smart thing.

He avoided talking heads about beliefs and kept the narrative on Pi.

ex. Pi weathers a storm in the Atlantic.
ex. Pi tries to catch fish to eat.

Pi's conflicts with the antagonist and setting naturally bring up the intangible questions.

ex. Do you care for an inherently dangerous beast? (antagonist)
ex. How do you react when the ocean takes your supplies? (setting)

Suddenly, what is unseen in the book is seen on the screen.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: "If you can’t see it or hear it, don’t write it"

Life of Pi (2012)
by David Magee
Based on the original novel by Yann Martel

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) - Good/Bad Voice Over

[Quick Summary: In the Cajun shanty district, six year old Hushpuppy and her father Wink face floods after a hurricane.]

Voice over (V.O.) is a cheat.

Rule #1: Don't use it.
Rule #2: If you have to use it, hide it.
Rule #3: If you can't hide it, see Rule #1.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the writers use V.O. often for Hushpuppy.

(Perhaps it was the only way to explain how this six year old thinks?)

I thought the V.O. was effective when it was hid exposition (rule #2):

ex. "If Daddy don't get home soon, it's gonna be time for me to start eating my pets."   
- The V.O. focuses us on Hushpuppy's hunger.  It sinks in later that Wink is not home yet. 

I did not like it as much when V.O. was used as commentary.  

ex.  "It [refugee camp] didn't look like a prison, it looked like a fish tank with no water.
This V.O. explains Hushpuppy's first impressions of a building. 
-  I like this, but feel like it's "telling, not showing" me.

ex. Post-flood, Hushpuppy watches a weak Wink hammer nails.
 "It didn't matter that the water was gone. Sometimes, you can break something so bad, that it can't get put back together."
- This V.O. tells us that she is aware of pain, i.e., she is maturing. 
-  Again, it's telling me she's becoming wiser.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Less voice over is always more in my book.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
Based on the stage play "Juicy and Delicious" by Lucy Alibar

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Argo (2012) - How to Introduce Action Characters

[Quick Summary:  CIA operative to get Americans out of Tehran, Iran in 1980.]

Action scripts need to mooooooooove.

Unfortunately, many scripts have a slow pace and rhythm, beginning with the initial character introductions.

ex. JOE, 25, a mild mannered mechanic with nunchucks in his back pocket, washes windows.

Do we really need to know Joe has a weapon? Can you see "mild mannered"?  

But Argo shows a new trend on how to keep the pace up:

- The character's initial introduction is at a bare minimum.
- The character is then fleshed out later by his/her actions.
ex. TONY MENDEZ, 40, asleep in his clothes from the day before.

ex.  JOHN CHAMBERS, Hollywood's first Oscar winner for makeup, walks onto set carrying a fishing tackle box of supplies.

ex. TOM AHERN, 48, the CIA station chief here.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I like this trend because it gets the reader to the action faster.

Argo (2012)
by Chris Terrio

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Three Layered Dialogue

[Quick Summary: Maya, a CIA targeter, hunts and finds Osama bin Laden.]

I was fully to prepared to skip this script.

The controversial topic and hype just became too much.

After I read it to complete the list of Oscar scripts, I was glad I did because it is exceptionally well-crafted.

Yes, it's a heavy topic (and I'm not sure I'd want to get in that head space again.)

But I'd recommend this script, if only for the dialogue.

On a first glance, it may seem to be all exposition.  But if you look closely, the dialogue almost always has three layers:  

- Layer 1:  Basic exposition
JESSICA: How's the needle in the haystack?
MAYA: Fine. [You know Maya is still looking for something.]

- Layer 2: Subtext
JESSICA: Facilitators come and go, but one thing you can count on in life is that everyone wants money.
MAYA (smiling): You're assuming that Al Qaeda members are motivated by financial rewards. They're radicals.  [Subtext is that these are competitors.]

- Layer 3: Moves the script forward
JESSICA (bigger smile): Correct. You're assuming that greed won't override ideology in some of the weaker members.
MAYA: Money for walk-ins worked great in the cold war, I'll give you that. [Twist; has Maya made a concession?]
JESSICA: Thank you.
MAYA: Just not sure those tactics are applicable to the Middle East. [Pushes us forward to the next scene where Maya tries harder.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  It wasn't obvious to me at first, but Maya uses dialogue as a weapon.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
by Mark Boal

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - My Two Rules About Ensembles

[Quick Summary: A 12 yr. old Kahki Scout and his girlfriend run away together, in hot pursuit by parents, and a scout troop.]
I'm not a big fan of Wes Anderson films, but I do like this script.

It abides by (then stretches) my two rules of ensembles:

1)  Even in an ensemble, there are 1-2 lead characters. *

Here, Sam and Suzy Bishop (the kids) are clearly the leads.

They easily could have been overshadowed by four very active adult characters, but the script is careful to keep the focus on the children.
2) Multiple subplots are fine, but they must SUPPORT the main character's story. 

Scout Master Ward, Captain Sharp, Mr. and Mrs. Bishop each have their subplots.  That's right - there are FOUR additional arcs.

However, the reader never forgets about Sam and Suzy.

How did the writers do it?

The supporting characters have separate subplot arcs, but each one supports the main plot.

ex. Scout Master Ward loses his status --> rescuing the kids restores his honor.

ex. Captain Sharp loses the woman he loves --> rescuing the kids gives his life new meaning.

ex. Mr. and Mrs. Bishop have a troubled marriage --> rescuing the kids brings them together.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Strong ensembles have strong (but not overpowering) subplots.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
(The above link has an interactive script, plus a separate PDF.)
by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

*If you insist on multiple main characters, please read my post on The Best Years of Our Lives (three main characters face the same problem).

Those types of stories need much more structure to keep the story clear and unified. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Flight (2012) - No Easy Way Out

[Quick Summary: After an intoxicated pilot lands a billion-to-one flight, he boils over as questions abound.]

I can see why Denzel wanted to play the pilot, Whip.

Whip doesn't take responsibility.

He doesn't have tough conversations or relationships.  He either walks away, or reaches for the bottle.

But after he saves a flight while high, he cannot hide.  His coping mechanisms no longer work.

I liked that the script is really hard on Whip.

It was so satisfying to see him face everything he's avoided.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I respect characters who earn their victories.

Flight (2012)
by John Gatins

Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Django Unchained (2012) - I'll Admire From Afar

[Quick Summary: A black ex-slave turned bounty hunter rescues his wife from her plantation slave owner.]

Here's my two cents on this Oscar nominated winning script:

#1 - There are several tortures, rapes, and senseless killings.

They are not gratuitous.  Each one has a purpose.

However, I have a nasty suspicion that the cruelty depicted could easily have happened...and it made the ugliness ten times worse to stomach.

#2 -  The script shows Tarantino knows story and how to tell it.

His skill is the only thing that makes this terrible topic bearable.

Is the script worth reading? Yes.  It is daring, provocative, and unafraid.

Would I read it again? No.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I admire this script for its audacity.

However, I did not enjoy the read, particularly the inhumane violence against Broomhilda.

Django Unchained (2012)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

Monday, February 11, 2013

2013 OSCARS: Amour (2012) - Anatomy of Loss

[Quick Summary: After a wife suffers two strokes, her loving husband struggle to cope.]

I admit I was not looking forward to reading this Oscar nominated script.

Would a husband caring for his dying wife keep my interest?

The answer is YES.

Anna's husband Georges is losing his vibrant wife in increments.

The script shines as each scene shows the loss, and then how Georges overcomes it.

The losses begin small.

ex. Anna goes mute for a few seconds. Georges panics.

Then they become larger.

ex. Anna becomes incontinent. Georges cleans up.

Then a great big avalanche.

ex. He covers up Anne's spiraling decline from their daughter.

I felt this escalating structure rather than saw it.  I was too worried how upbeat Georges would face the next decision.

Now that's good writing!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I became more invested as the losses grew.

The increase in tension and suspense were a nice side benefit.

Amour (2012)
by Michael Haneke

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981) - One Way to Adapt the Unadaptable

[Quick Summary: An actor and actress pretend affair for a film shoot parallels their affair in real life.]

Last week's read was disappointing.

The next three Pinter scripts in the queue* only got a brief skim.

(I didn't get them. Anyone care to chime in?)

This brings me to the only script I wanted to read: the Oscar nominated The French Lieutenant's Woman.

The story is about Charles, an engaged English gent.  He gets involved with Sarah, a shunned woman who walks the undercliffs.

Here are a few challenges that Pinter faced:**

- It is a 445 pg. unfilmable novel.
- It has three alternate endings and a narrator.
- It switches between Victorian and modern periods.
- It had been unsuccessfully developed for 8-9 years.

So what did Pinter do? He inserted a construction that is NOT in the book.

How did he do it?  The story of Charles and Sarah would now be a movie being filmed.   "Mike" is an actor who would play Charles. "Anna" would play Sarah.

Mike and Anna are having an affair, just like the roles they are playing.

This construction enables the audience to see the Victorian story, but also the modern comment on it. (Easy in a novel. Not so easy in a film.)

When Charles and Sarah have problems, it emphasizes the same ones between Mike and Anna.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I agree with Fowles about Pinter:

"[H]is genius ...seems to me to be his truly remarkable gift for reducing the long and complex without distortion." ***

*The Quiller Memorandum (1966) - cold war spy
Accident (1967) - tragedy in flashback
The Go-Between (1970) - forbidden love affair
** For more, read author John Fowles' foreword to the script.

***Also, Fowles praised Pinter's approach to this adaption as "the only way."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Pumpkin Eater (1964) - Not for Me

[Quick Summary: A thrice married mother breaks down in public, and the story explores of her difficult attitudes and marriage.]

I did not like this script.

In a series of flashbacks, we learn that:

- This is a story of Jo, who melts down in Harrods department store.
- She has a passel of kids from previous marriages, and wants more.  
- Jake, her third husband, is fed up and is at a loss.
- Jo is recovering from the breakdown.   

I did not like these characters, but I could deal with it.

I did not like the plot, but I could deal with it too.

However, the story was going nowhere, and that I could not stomach. 

Jo fits so well in this nursery rhyme:

"Peter, Peter pumpkin eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well."

But in a film? Not for me.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The more I read, the more that I sense my limits.

If someone asked me to pitch a take on this novel, I'd have to pass.

The Pumpkin Eater (1964)
by Harold Pinter
Adapted from the novel by Penelope Mortimer

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Servant (1963) - Creepy Invasion of Personal Space

[Quick Summary: A new servant takes over his employer's life, and becomes a menace.]

I'm very keen on writer's "must read" recommendations.

However, when the playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008) was suggested, I procrastinated.

I knew very little about him, and his obituary was intimidating:
- "provocative"
- "vigorous political polemicist,"
- "[H]e spawned the adjective "Pinteresque" suggesting a cryptically mysterious situation imbued with hidden menace."

I finally ran out of excuses.

The Servant starts off innocently, and then it really spooked me.

Barrett, a manservant, comes to work for his employer Tony.  Barrett is ideal, until he stealthily isolates Tony.

It's little things at first.

ex. Barrett interrupts Tony and girlfriend Susan during an intimate moment.

Then it becomes more devious.

ex. Barrett brings his girlfriend Vera into the house as a maid. Vera seduces Tony.  Did Barrett orchestrated it or not?

Then it becomes horrible.

ex. Barrett keeps Tony drugged and dependent. Tony has no idea how much he has lost.

Barrett is a psychological menace.  He moves into Tony's personal space one step at a time, until there is none.

Tony is oblivious to how Barrett is destroying him...and that makes it ten times more creepy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: A psychological drama/thriller can be as simple as playing with personal space. 

The Servant (1963)
Adapted by Harold Pinter
Based on the novel by Robin Maugham

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Diner (1982) - Talking About Nothing

[Quick Summary: A tight group of male friends struggle with adulthood in 1959 Baltimore.]

Before Seinfeld, there was Diner, where a group of guys talked about nothing in their favorite diner.

How can nothing be interesting? Because it's really about something.

1) Some of it is building the anticipation.

ex. Boogie, Fenwick and Billy bet on Eddie's 140 question football test for his fiancee. Eddie will call off the wedding if she does not get 70%. Will she pass?

2) The guys love to tell often told stories, which is a window into their lives.

ex. Billy beats up a total stranger.  Shrevie explains to his wife that:
- Billy was jumped by a whole baseball team in high school
- Billy has beat up 7 of the 9 members
- This is number 8 of 9.
- Even though it's seven years later, Billy will not rest until he has found all nine.

In other words, Billy is stuck in time.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If done right, talking about nothing reveals more than something.

Diner (1982)
Written & directed by Barry Levinson

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Clueless (1995) - Contradictions

[Quick Summary: A high school girl tries to improve her friends, but has no idea that the person most in need of improvement is herself.]

My hat is off to Clueless.

It has withstood the test of time, and is still fresh and smart.

For my money, it is Cher (the lead) whose contradictions make the story so funny.

She is so well-intentioned, but has no idea that she is the clueless one:

- She has no idea what people are talking about, but pretends that she does.

ex. "They get in and he starts the car.

CHRISTIAN: You like Billie Holliday?
CHER: I love him."

- She thinks she knows what is best for others, and manipulates accordingly.

ex. "CHER: OK. It'll get easier, as long as we do it every day, not just sporadically.
TAI: How do you know if you're doing it sporadically?

Josh looks bewildered. What is Cher up to?

CHER (patiently): That's another thing Tai. We've got to work on your accent and vocabulary.  Like "sporadic" means once in a while. Try to use it in a sentence today, and find some other adjectives besides the "F" word."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Contradictions are interesting and timeless.

Clueless (1995)
Written and directed by Amy Heckerling

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

TODAY'S NUGGET: Last Man Standing (1996) - Crosses & Double Crosses; My LAST Walter Hill script

[Quick Summary: A drifter arrives in a small Texas town, and pits two competing gangs against each other.]

Last Man Standing is a fitting read for my last Walter Hill script.

The story gets my grudging respect, mainly because of the smart crosses and double crosses.

"John Smith" is a conniving, quick draw drifter in the Old West.

He arrives during a truce between two whiskey smuggling gangs.

When the Doyle gang causes trouble for him, Smith aligns himself with the Rossi gang -- and then plays them off each other.

Smith is willing to cross and double cross two very bad gangs, which makes him interesting to watch.
Is he is a good guy? 

ex. He rescues enslaved Felina.
ex. He protects Joe the barkeeper.

Or is he bad?

ex. He shoots the Doyle gang who keeps Felina hostage, then shifts the blame to Rossi.
ex. He joins Rossi's gang, quits, then sells info to Doyle's gang - all to destroy both gangs.

Smith had the right motives (to get rid of bad guys), but his means did not have many boundaries.

I was rather surprised how far he took "the end justifies the means."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Does crossing and double-crossing bad guys make you a bad guy too? Still thinking about that one.

Last Man Standing (1996)
Written & directed by Walter Hill
From a story by Ryuzo Kikushima & Akira Kurosawa
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