Monday, December 29, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Silkwood (1983) - "Likeable" vs. "Empathetic" (Choose the Latter)

[Quick Summary: Karen Silkwood is contaminated for uncovering health hazards at her plutonium plant.]

"I don't like that character."
"He isn't likeable enough."
"Can't you make her more likeable?"

What the hell is "likeability"?

I've discovered over time that if you ask a few more questions, it boils down to this:

People use the word "likeable" when they actually mean "empathetic."

[Heads up writers, your job is to decipher what this shortcut means:

-"I don't like him [because I don't get why he made the decisions that he did]."
- "He isn't likeable enough [because he's always angry for no reason]."
- "Can't you make her more [conflicted/contradictory/complicated]"?]

Nora Ephron's scripts are pure gold for empathetic characters. 

Karen Silkwood is a great example. She makes radical decisions in 1970s Oklahoma. She smokes weed. Her three kids live with their dad in Texas. Her boyfriend can't take the stress and leaves.

Yet we identify with her facing her dilemmas and struggles. 

ex. "DENISE reaches out to hand her half-eaten hamburger to KAREN.

DENISE: I finished.
DONNY (to Drew): Do you still sleep with Mama?
DREW: Yes.

The hamburger drips ketchup all over KAREN'S dress.

KAREN: Oh shit.
DOLLY (without turning around): Don't say that, Mama.

DREW hands KAREN a napkin, sits down at the table.

DONNY: Do you hit Mama?
DREW: Not unless she hits me first."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Our job is to get the audience to empathize (understand) with the characters, not necessarily to approve.

Silkwood (1983)
by Nora Ephron & Alice Arlen

Monday, December 22, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) - Conflict = Eager to Engage

[Quick Summary: A professor and his wife trap entertain couple in a booze soaked, button pushing evening.]

The recent passing of brilliant director Mike Nichols prompted me to read the scripts that he directed. 

This was his first produced film. 

It was a ballsy choice and still burns up on the page.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the conflict is impressively strong.

I discovered that one of the reasons is because the opposing characters are eager to engage.

They may evade for a little while, but always circle back, swinging.

ex. "GEORGE: I'm tired, dear...it's late...and besides --
MARTHA: I don't know what you're so tired about...you haven't done anything all day; you didn't have any classes, or anything....
GEORGE: Well, I'm tired....If your father didn't set up these damn Saturday night orgies all the time....
MARTHA: Well, that's just too bad about you, George....
GEORGE (grumbling): Well, that's how it is, anyway.
MARTHA: You didn't do anything; you never do anything; you never mix. You just sit around and talk.
GEORGE: What do you want me to do? Do you want me to go around all night braying at everybody, the way you do?
MARTHA (braying): I DON'T BRAY!
GEORGE (softly): All right...you don't bray.
MARTHA (hurt): I do not bray.
GEORGE: All right. I said you didn't bray.
MARTHA (after a moment): Fix me a drink.
GEORGE: Haven't you had enought?
MARTHA: I said, fix me a drink."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I think the "engaging" is why people are interesting to watch.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
by Ernest Lehman
Adapted from the play by Eward Albee

Monday, December 15, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Great Gatsby (2013) - More Than Non-Stop Energy

[Quick Summary: Writer Nick Carraway observes the privileged lives of his cousin Daisy, her husband, and mysterious neighbor Gatsby.]

I think this adaption is remarkable for two reasons:

1) It makes Nick part of the action (he was an observer in the book).
2) It pulses with a 1920s squeeze-every-drop energy.

Note in the scene below:

1) How Nick is an observer (staying true to the book) but also a participant.
2) The non-stop energy (i.e., non-stop action) captures the recklessness of the time, but also reflect Tom's privileged attitude.

ex.  INT. BUCHANAN MANSION - HALL OF CHAMPIONS - LATE AFTERNOON

Tom leads Nick down a grand hall lined with the trophies that chonicle Tom's infinite sporting achievements.

TOM: First team, all-American!

Tom admires his own achievements.

TOM: You see? Made me who I am today.

Tom pulls his favorite trophy from the cabinet --

TOM: Here --Forest Hills...I played the Prince of Wales. What a sissy!

Tom exchanges the trophy for a football.

TOM: Life's something you dominate Nick.

He pelts Nick with the ball --

TOM: If you're any good.

Nick fumbles as Tom charges him --

TOM: Ha-ha-ha!

Tom tackles Nick, knocking him back, through a pair of vaulting doors, and into [the salon]. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: On the surface, the non-stop energy (i.e., non-stop action) captured the 1920s.

However, it was also tailored for each character. For Tom, it was recklessness. For Daisy, desperation. 

The Great Gatsby (2013)
by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce
Based on the novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Monday, December 8, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Carnal Knowledge (1971) - What I Learned from an All Dialogue Script

[Quick Summary: In three life phases, two friends talk about sex.]

This script is the funniest, most thought provoking script I've seen about sex.  (It's really not about the sex.)

Three Things Your Should Know:

1) The writer is Jules Feiffer, a prolific, renowned illustrator, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and all around sharp political observer.*

2) Feiffer stated in an interview where this film came from:
Your attitudes to sex and intimacy in Carnal Knowledge are similar to those that we see in your strip from the ’50s onwards. You seem to have a certain rage against the sexual revolution before it even got started.
Well, the point of the film, based on my life and my observation, was that -- and I still think is permanent -- is that heterosexual men didn’t like women. They liked sex. They liked pussy. But they didn’t like the conversation afterwards. They didn’t like the commitment. They didn’t like what women expected of them. They didn’t like the fetters. They wanted their freedom. While women wanted commitment. And by freedom they usually meant freedom to be miserable. I thought this had to be documented and nobody had ever done it. And that’s why the film struck such a chord, because as in the strips where I dealt with sex in the ’50s -- and also the politics too -- but particularly the sex, I was saying things that everyone knew but no one had ever recorded. Except for, about the same time as me, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which is why we got along so well. What Nichols and May were doing in their sketches, in the clubs, and later television was essentially what I was trying to do in the comic strip.
3)  The script is 90% dialogue. Why does it work so well here?

a - Know what you want to say. From #2 above, Feiffer was focused on men's contradictory "freedom to be miserable".

Feiffer channeled that point of view into the dialogue.

b -  Keep conflict clear. I think Feiffer stuffs the dialogue with conflict so inherently clear that narrative is unnecessary. **

c - Subtext, NOT THE TEXT, does all the heavy lifting

ex. JONATHAN: You don't know every mood of mine like you know every mood of his. [He wants to be her #1 guy.]

SUSAN: No.

JONATHAN: How come?

SUSAN: I don't know.

JONATHAN: You don't tell me thoughts I never knew I had. [He's free as a bird, so why is he jealous?]

SUSAN: Does he say I do that?

He nods.

SUSAN: Then I guess I must.

JONATHAN: You do it all right. So do it with me. [The bachelor is asking for more?!]

SUSAN: I can't.

JONATHAN: Why can't you?

SUSAN: I can't with you.

JONATHAN: This has gone far enough. [He's reached his limit.]

SUSAN: I can't stand any more ultimatums, Jonathan.

JOHNATHAN: This is my last one! Tonight you tell him about us or tomorrow I tell him! Look at me, Susan. [Does he want her because she's someone else's girl?]

She looks at him.

JONATHAN: Now, tell me my goddamn thoughts!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script is all dialogue, but don't be fooled.

It only works because the foundation is solid (clear POV, clear conflict, clear subtext).

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
by Jules Feiffer
Adapted from his own play

*He was a Village Voice cartoonist for 40+ years, children's book illustrator, and writer of 35 plays, novels, and screenplays.

**I think Feiffer's illustration training lends itself to screenwriting, i.e., both use few words as possible to get a message across. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

TODAY'S NUGGET: Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (1989) - Sight Gags

[Quick Summary: Indiana Jones searches his father, who has gone looking for the Holy Grail.]

I like that this script doesn't take itself too seriously.

The tone is light with gaffs and gags.

I think this adds a dash of the unexpected to scenes with exposition, or routine actions.

One of my favorites is when Indy breaks into the library floor.

The scene itself is routine, but necessary, to get to the next clue.

The writer used a funny gag to make it memorable:

"Indy rushes past Brody to a cordon held in place by a brass stand underneath the stained-glass window.

Indy raises the brass stand and timing his actions, hits the tile precisely as the Librarian stams a book. The Librarian regards the stamper curiously.

Indy continues to pound at the tile as the Librarian resumes his stamping, still puzzled by the SOUND ECHOING through the library.

Finally Indy breaks the tile.  As he bends to remove the pieces of broken tile, a TWO-FOOT SQUARE HOLE IS REVEALED."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: A sight gag in the right place can add a new twist to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (1989) 
by Jeff Boam
Story by George Lucas & Menno Meyjes