Monday, June 30, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Three Days of Condor (1975) - Every Scene Should Convey a Single Shot

[Quick Summary: After a CIA researcher's co-workers are mass murdered, he uncovers a huge conspiracy.]

I hate vague aphorisms.

What does "every scene should convey a single shot" mean?

I know it's a true observation, but for heaven's sake, give me EXAMPLES, people, EXAMPLES!!

This Sidney Pollock directed script happens to have excellent ones:


We should be aware of how menacing PASSERSBY seem to TURNER.

TURNER: I told you, my name's Turner - I work for you! Something's happened, somebody came in and --!

MITCHELL: Identify yourself.

TURNER can only hold tight to the phone, his mind blank. So, very clear, level:

MITCHELL: What is your designation?

It's like talking to a goddamn computer: if you don't speak its programmed language, it won't respond. TURNER makes an enormous effort:

TURNER: This is...oh...Condor!"

The scene = A panicked Turner is on the phone and tries to get help.

The shot = Anxious Turner is in the phone booth. People pass by.  Maybe they look in?  Turner struggles to stay calm.

Notice how the writing directs the mind's eye:

- The focus is on Turner and his paranoia.
- Whether inside or outside the booth, it's all about how Turner acts and reacts.
- It's easy to see the whole interaction in one shot. 
WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Think in terms of 1 scene = 1 shot. 

Keep scenes clean (clear, no clutter, not too much busyness).

Three Days of Condor (1975)
by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel
Based on the novel Six Days of Condor by James Grady

Sunday, June 29, 2014

P.S. on Dreams on Spec (2007)

Be sure to watch the extra Interviews with established writers.  Really fun war stories.

(They're on the DVD, but I'm not sure if they're available via streaming.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Dreams on Spec (2007) - Screenwriters chasing the dream

If you're a screenwriter, this is an eye opening documentary.

It has the usual famous screenwriter interviews, but I particularly like how it shows the sacrifice and struggles of not famous writers:

- One writer has been working on a script for three years. It's tough on his family.

- Another writer has his script re-written by the director.  He is not happy with the changes.

- A former creative executive-turned-writer downscales to a small apartment in order to write and direct her first film.

You get to see what it's like when:

- A writer switches managers.
- A writer seeks help from a script consultant.
- A writer gets to see his first film produced.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you're serious about writing, this is as close to reality as I've seen.

But if you don't want to know how the sausage is made; if you don't want the glamor stripped from the process, don't watch this.

Dreams on Spec (2007)

Monday, June 23, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) - Clues are Spice, Not Meat (Pacing)

[Quick Summary: A stranger arrives to an unwelcome reception at Black Rock.]

Read this script NOW.

One Oscar winning screenwriter called it an "airtight...seamless" script.

Paul Thomas Andersen said he learned directing from the director's commentary for this film.

For me, I learned about how to dole out the clues (pacing).

ex. A stranger (Macreedy) arrives by train in a small town.

He announces he needs to drive to Adobe Flat (p.6), a few miles away, but we don't find out why until about p. 27.

Did you see that? Page TWENTY-SEVEN!

So what does happen between the clues?

- He has to deal with the WHOLE town.
- He runs into the biggest landowner, Smith, who bullies the town.
- He can't rent a car, get a room, or a decent meal.
- Everyone, except him, knows the guilty secret about Adobe Flat.

If this were written today, Macreedy would be hinting and/or dropping clues for the whole 27 pages.

I marvel at this script because he does not.

Instead, the meat of the story is Macreedy's character conflicts versus the town folk.

Clues are reserved as spice, to be used sparingly.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've been using clues as meat for way too long.

Bad Day at Black Rock (shooting script)(1955)
Written by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman
Based on the story, "Bad Day at Hondo" by Howard Breslin

Monday, June 16, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Adjustment Bureau (2011) - Adapting a Short Story into a Feature

[Quick Summary: The Adjustment Bureau continues to keep apart a couple in love.] 

Today I decided to reverse engineer this script.
How did the screenwriter expand the short story into a film?

In the short story:
- David Norris works at an insurance company.
- He's married.
- It happens in a day and within 18 pages.

In the screenplay:
- David Norris is a congressman.
- He's single and falls in love.
- It happens over 6+ years, and 129 pages.

After reading William Goldman's book, I know audiences should be ok with these superficial changes as long as:

1) The emotional core was the same.
2) That the emotional core was protected at all costs.

In the short story, the emotional core is: "Should I tell my wife the truth?"

In the script, the writer structured the story around this question.

The script asks this question three times - all at major turning points, all with higher stakes.

Check them both out for yourself.  They're worth the read.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To do justice to a short story, stick close to its emotional core.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
by George Nolfi
Based on the short story, "The Adjustment Team", by Philip K. Dick

Monday, June 9, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Mud (2012) - Moving the Reader Along Visually

[Quick Summary: Two 14 y.o. boys discover a murderer hiding out on a small island.]

In a "Conversation with writer-director Jeff Nichols", he says:
[A script is] more about visually moving your reader through the story and on the page.  So every line, other than descriptions for clothes, and possibly the look of a house or a location...[is] brief....
[E]verything else is a shot in the movie. But I use no camera direction. Camera direction bugs the hell out of me. You don't know what the camera is going to do. Just tell me what I'm looking at, and that will get me there much faster than you trying to tell me what the movie's gonna look like. 
A line that you write can give you the point of view that you need, everything you need. 'He looks through the back of the van to see XYZ burning in the distance' .... From that description, you already know where the camera is going to be. And what it's going to be pointed at.  And what it's going to be seeing. And how it's going to be moving.  It's harder to write this way.  It's very easy to say, "We move with him through the parking lot."
Nichols does walk the walk:

ex. "Ellis turns and grabs one end of the cooler. Neckbone slaps back the security latch and opens the door with his free hand.  They walk out."

Here's how this moved me along visually:

- I saw a shot of two boys walking out with a cooler between them.
- But the script never says 'Neckbone takes the other end of the cooler.'
- It's unnecessary to say so. Why?  We infer it from "they walk out".
- A strong POV ('we're leaving' intent) + Movement = The cooperation between Ellis and Neckbone is self-explanatory.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Write more about what I'm looking at, tinged with the character's point of view.

My new unit of writing measurement is the shot.  

Mud (2012)(shooting script)
by Jeff Nichols

Monday, June 2, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Lego: The Piece of Resistance (2014) - "The Purpose of This Scene Is..."

[Quick Summary: In Legopolis, Emmet races to rescue his mother from the bad Black Falcon.]

I wrote on a deadline last month.

The time crunch revealed that I struggled with building up Act 2.

I got lost because: 1) I was hurrying,  and 2) I forgot a fundamental:

You must know the purpose of each scene, i.e., What do you need to extract before moving on to the next scene?
In Lego, you always know the purpose of each scene:


CLOSE ON A RACQUEL WELCH POSTER. A blowdart gun emerges from her belly-button. TH-THOONK! Two guards outside Emmet's cell go down. DORIS bursts through the poster!

The following conversation is WHISPERED.

EMMET: Mom? What are you doing here?
DORIS: I'm breaking you out.
EMMET: But, that's breaking the rules. You told me never to do that.
DORIS: Well I'm temporarily reversing my position for reasons of convenience."

The purpose is clear:  Emmet must get out of jail.

It also clarifies:
-  the scene before (Emmet gets into jail) and
-  the scene after (Emmet and Doris are on the run).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When you're lost, ask, "What is the purpose of this scene?"

Lego: The Piece of Resistance (2014)(undated, unspecified draft)
by Chris Miller & Phil Lord
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