Monday, December 28, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Night of the Hunter (1955) - Menance; Rooting for a Protagonist; Upping the Ante

[Quick Summary: A thief only marries a widow only to get to her children, who know where stolen money is hidden.]

Dear Thriller Writers Everywhere,

If you've ever had trouble with writing menace...
If you want to write a protagonist we continue to root for...
If you've never seen a story that ups the ante, with thrills, without blood...

I highly recommend that you read this script.

- Menace


Labled H-A-T-E in tattoo across four knuckles, it grips and flexes.


Before we see the lettering he slides it into his pocket.


His head slants; a cold smile; one eyelid flutters."

- A protagonist we continue to root for


They sit in the grass, a sentimental picture. JOHN is nine; PEARL is five. They are working togheter on PEARL's doll; PEARL is dressing her, while JOHN gets on a difficult shoe.

PEARL: Stand still, Miss Jenny!

JOHN (across her): There! What's so hard about that!

He proudly exhibits the shod foot.

They hear the sound of an auto engine O.S.  They look O.S.  and get up, PEARL dangling the doll."

- Upping the ante


She takes him in. He doesn't take her in."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Scripts of this era are more restrained, yet more fleshed out, than today's scripts.

I think the constrictions of this era are better for story, i.e., What do you do when there's no fast solution (guns, explosives, etc.)?

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
by James Agee
Based on a novel by Davis Grubb

Monday, December 21, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Conversation (1974) - Repetition of a Conversation = A Haunting

[Quick Summary: Surveillance expert thinks his recording of a private conversation might predict a murder.]

Here's how the story opens:
- Harry Caul is a surveillance expert who likes the chase of getting a recording.
- His job is to record and deliver. He doesn't pay attention to the substance of the conversation. 
- He gets a job following and recording a man and woman as they talk in a park. 
- Unfortunately, he can only record bits and pieces of that conversation.
- It's rather mundane lovers' talk.

Before he can deliver the recording to the client, others try to steal it.

Why would others want such a mundane recording?

These bits and pieces of conversation surface again and again at odd times.  The longer Harry has to wait to deliver the recording, the more it haunts him.

I know that repetition of a single conversation isn't an unusual technique.

However, I was intrigued how it is used here, like a ghost.

Harry usually ignored the substance of his recordings, but this time, he paid attention, and heard a few disturbing clues.

Now he can't get it out of his mind (haunting).  It causes him to takes action to verify the clues, make conclusions and assumptions.

In short, it drives him forward. (Perhaps it's an antagonist too?)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've never seen repetition of a conversation used like an impetus, i.e., something that drives the character forward.

The Conversation (1974)
by Francis Ford Coppola

Monday, December 14, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Man Up (2015) - The Seven Rom-Com Beats

[Quick Summary: After being mistaken for his blind date, woman debates telling the guy the truth.]


a) Produced rom-coms are now rarer than hen's teeth,
b) This is a terrific read, and
c) Writer Tess Morris is a fan of Billy Mernit's Writing the Romantic Comedy (as am I), and used it while writing this script,

I decided to see if I could find those 7 rom-com beats.

(WARNING: I've tried to stay away from spoilers, but THERE ARE SOME.):

1) The Chemical Equation: Setup - Nancy is fun, but lacks fun in her life.

2) Cute Meet: Catalyst - Nancy runs off a train to return a book to a stranger, but meets the stranger's blind date, Jack, instead.

3) A Sexy Complication: Turning Point - They go to a restaurant where Jack reveals trust issues. Nancy likes him...should she tell the truth and perhaps lose him? (internal conflict)

4) The Hook: Midpoint - Jack finds out, is mad, but they need to return to the restaurant together.

5) Swivel: 2nd Turning Point - At the restaurant, they run into Jack's ex. Nancy helps Jack unload some emotional baggage.

6) The Dark Moment: Crisis Climax - Nancy and Jack argue over desires and part ways.

7) Joyful Defeat: Resolution - Nancy and Jack reunite.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I was pretty much able to find the beats without referring to the script.  For me, that's the hallmark of a well defined, clean structure.

Man Up (2014)
by Tess Morris

Monday, December 7, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Professional (1994) - Where Does Jeopardy Come From?

[Quick Summary: A hitman takes on an orphaned girl, and it changes their lives.]

My 3 thoughts:

1) I'm conflicted about this well crafted script. I liked it, but it unsettled me.

2) I was happy it is well told.  I was not happy with the age of girl (12).

3) I'd recommend reading it if you would like to see examples of characters in constant jeopardy, sometimes physical or emotional, but often both.

Jeopardy arises from the risks the characters take, and keeps the tension going.

In the scene below, Leon introduces Mathilda to his employer for the first time. She is unseasoned and giving her on-the-job training is a risk for everyone.


TONY is completely dumbfounded. He's sitting across from LEON and...Mathilda!
TONY can't believe his eyes or ears.
LEON is slightly embarrassed but stays calm.

LEON: As you can see, I took a hit...and I need a hand. She's young but...she learns fast,'s just a need to be shaped into something - right?

TONY (lost): Uh...yeah...I dunno...I maybe, but not babies!

There's silence.

LEON (uneasy): She's eighteen...

TONY looks at MATHILDA doubtfully.

LEON: about something to drink?

TONY (to Manolo): Manolo?! A glass of milk for Leon!

MATHILDA: ...two.

TONY turns and stares down MATHILDA.

MATHILDA (with a sweet smile): ...please.

MATHILDA's sweet face overwhelms TONY.

TONY (strongly): ...Manolo! Two glasses of milk!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Is your character too safe? Bored? Make a risky move!

The Professional (1994) 
by Luc Besson

Monday, November 30, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: A Woman Under the Influence (1974) - The Inherent Conflict of Opposites

[Quick Summary: A slice of life story of a mother who might be mad, steady husband, and three happy kids.]

Director John Cassavettes tried to write a play for his wife Gena Rowlands.

After several failed drafts, she said, "Deal with it from a woman's point of view. Deal with it so that I have a part."  He wrote her a juicy role, Mabel, in this script. 

Cassavettes was interested in the simultaneous hate/love, or love/like dynamic.

Combining opposites guarantees conflict.  This is why Mabel is so fascinating.

In the scene below, Mr. Jensen is dropping off his kids to play with Mabel's kids.  He does not know how to deal with Mabel, who insists he participate in the fun.

This scene is a contrast of both uncomfortable and fun.

ex. "The three boys sit on the couch watching Mabel dancing with Mr. Jensen.

MABEL: Now isn't this fun?

Maria and Adrienne continue their dance steps.

MARIA: Mama, watch this now...we're gonna die. Come on, Mom.

Mabel breaks self-consciously away from Mr. Jensen.

Adrienne does the last part of the "Swan Lake" which is the swan curtsey into the death.

Maria does it.

Mabel is clapping and yelling bravo; she signals the boys to clap too.

Everyone claps.

Mabel turns to Mr. Jensen who is just standing there.

MABEL: Come on, applaud your daughter. She just died for you.

He reluctantly applauds.

MABEL: Bravo, bravo!

The boys pick it up.

TONY, ANGELO, JOHN: Bravo, bravo.

"Swan Lake" ends and a version of "Pathetique" comes on, a piano solo.

Mabel circles and begins dancing solo.

Maria and Adrienne begin dancing.

The boys get up and begin dancing, leaping through the air.

Mr. Jensen stands there."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For instant conflict, combine opposite traits.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)(dated 8/23/72)
by John Cassavetes

Monday, November 23, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Mildred Pierce (1945) - A Three Dimensional Character Moment

[Quick Summary: Desperate for her selfish daughter's approval, a mother scrambles to find work.]

I felt bad for Mildred Pierce, who is addicted to approval from her daughter, Veda.

She makes a lot of bad decisions to supply unappreciative Veda with a good life (divorce, 2nd marriage, job, bankruptcy, etc.).

So why did I continue to root for Mildred?

One reason is the script develops Mildred as a three dimensional character.

She's not just single note, i.e., an ambitious/guilt ridden mother, or business owner.

She's also lonely, complex, a woman with desires, who wants to be wanted.

Below is a rare romantic moment when she lets herself feel good.


...MILDRED: Thank you, Mr. Beragon.. (savoring the sound of it) Mr. Monte Beragon. It's a very unusual name. Spanish?

MONTE: Mostly. Maybe a little Italian thrown in. But my mother's a real dyed in the wool Yankee. That's why I'm such a self-controlled, dignified young fellow. (he makes a face)

MILDRED (amused): And just what do you do, Mr. Beragon?

MONTE: Oh, I a decorative and highly charming manner...

MILDRED: That's all?

MONTE (gently reproving): With me, loafing is a science.

Mildred laughs, and throws her hair back. Monte is appreciative.

MONTE (murmuring): You're very beautiful, like that.

MILDRED (smiling): I'll bet you say that to all your sisters.

They both laugh.

MONTE (thoughtfully): I'm not very impressionable, Mildred. I lost my awe of women at an early age. But ever since that day you first came here...I've thought of nothing else but what I'd say to you when we met again... (he stops and shrugs) And now I can't say anything. You take my breath away.


MILDRED (softly): Do I? I like you Monte. You make me feel - I don't know - warm...wanted. You make me feel beautiful.


as Monte leans forward, holding out his hand.

MONTE: Shall I tell your fortune?

MILDRED: Can you?

MONTE (nodding): We Beragons come from a long line of teacup readers.

She stretches out her hand. He takes it and rises, pulling her up with him.


MONTE (softly): When I'm clse to you like this...there's a sound in the the beating of wings. Know what it is?

MILDRED (breathless): What?

MONTE: My heart. Beating. Like a schoolboy's.

MILDRED: Is it yours? I thought it was mine.

Leaning down, he kisses her. In the b.g. the record player picks this moment to get stuck on a record, playing  a single phrase over and over again. Mildred tried to pull away from Monte.

MILDRED (her mouth against his): The record --

Again he kisses her. The SOUND of the record keeps on."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I have a bad habit of speeding by these moments in my own writing, but they really do add dimension and richness to the story.

Mildred Pierce (1945)
by Ranald MacDougall
From the novel by James M. Cain

Monday, November 16, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Unbroken (2014) - Crafting Invisible Tone & Theme Into Scenes

[Quick Summary: The amazing life of Louie Zamperini, WWII POW survivor, 1936 Olympics runner, survivor at sea.]

Zamperini's true life story is crammed full of unusual adventures:

- He ran in the 1936 Olympics.
- He fought in WWII and was stranded at sea.
- He was picked up by the Japanese and survived their brutal POW camps.

This script is worth reading because:
- All that adventure is there on the page.
- This includes the triumphs and the scary bits.
- It is easy to read. Even the war torture scenes are written with sensitivity.

But most of all, you should read it because you will FEEL the structure, but you won't notice it.

What did the writers do?  They made sure each scene had hope as its tone and theme.

How did they do it? Zamperini and friends into some terrible situations, but they MAKE HOPEFUL DECISIONS.

ex. Zamperini is stranded at sea, but continues to care for an injured comrade.
ex. The Bird makes starving Zamperini run a race. He crawls across the finish line.
ex. When a shark lunges, fellow soldier Mac whacks it and saves Zamperini.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I think tone has a lot to do with a character's attitude. Zamperini chooses hope even in the darkest times.

As for the theme of hope, his consistent hopeful actions unify the whole story. 

Unbroken (2014)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, and Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson
Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand

Monday, November 9, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - "Lack of Sentimentality"

[Quick Summary: A talented 1960s folk singer struggles to stay afloat in NYC.]

I read this article that the Coens are sought for the "lack of sentimentality" in their writing.

Q: What is "lack of sentimentality"? 
A: I think it is writing about whatever is unpleasant, unflattering, dark, or stark, without trying to excuse or soften it.

Q: What does it look like on the page?
A: This script has it in spades:

- Llewyn Davis just can't get a break in the pre-Dylan era, before folk songs took off.
- He's earnest but makes some bad choices.
- He keeps moving forward, even in the worst of times.
- The tone is frank, non-judgmental.

The scene below has sympathy for Llewyn (who is concerned about Roland), but it is also a dispassionate record of what is happening (overdose).


Llewyn emerges from his stall and goes to the other occupied stall. Roland Turner is partly visible lying on the floor. Part ofthe arm is visible: coat off, sleeve pushed up, hose wrapped.

He is face-up head toward us so that the top half of his face is visible. He is unconscious, eyes rolled up, sheened with sweat. He twitches."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: "Lack of sentimentality" doesn't mean laying out every gruesome detail. It walks the line between frankness and just enough rawness.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Monday, November 2, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: True Grit (2010) - Playing Fair With the Audience

[Quick Summary: To avenge her father's death, a young girl and her hired gun chases the killer across lawless country.]

As a new writer, I tried very hard to be smarter than the audience by withholding surprises, adding unforeseen twists, or springing gotcha! moments.

Don't do that. It's not playing fair with audiences.

(And worse, it's poor storytelling.)

- DO lay out all the clues. (However, misdirection is also fair.) 

- DO avoid deus ex machina. (This always feels like a cheat to me.)

- DO keep your characters true to their traits.

In this script, the writers play fair by laying out all the character traits early, even the contradictory ones.  Later, when we see the same behavior, it seems consistent.

For example, Rooster Cogburn has his own code of honor. 

In the early scene below, we see that he fudges the truth, but when pressed, is honest.

Later, he shouts to the fugitives to surrender, but then he shoots one of them in the back. This seems contradictory, but is consistent with his code.

ex. "MR. GOUDY: ...In your four years as U.S. marshal, Mr. Cogburn, how many men have you shot?

MR. BARLOW: Objection.

MR. GOUDY: There is more to this shooting than meets the eye, Judge Parker. I will establish the bias of this witness.

JUDGE: Objection is overruled.

MR. GOUDY: How many, Mr. Cogburn

COGBURN: I never shot nobody I didn't have to.

MR. GOUDY: That was not the question. How many?

COGBURN: ...Shot or killed?

MR. GOUDY: Let us restrict it to "killed" so that we may have a manageable figure.

COGBURN: Around twelve or fifteen. Stopping men in flight, defending myself, et cetera.

MR. GOUDY: Around twelve or fifteen. So many that you cannot keep a precise count. Remember, you are under oath. I have examined the records and can supply the accurate figure.


COGBURN: I believe them two Whartons make twenty-three.

MR. GOUDY: Twenty-three dead men in four years.

COGBURN: It is a dangerous business."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Play fair. Don't hide clues. Lay it out for the reader.

True Grit (2010)
Adapted by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (draft dated 6/12/09)
Based on the novel by Charles Portis

Monday, October 26, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: A Serious Man (2009) - Ending Scenes with a "Button"

[Quick Summary: Prof. Larry Gopnik cannot believe the events in his Job-like life.]

This wasn't my favorite script, but I did like how the writers ended their scenes.

Each one ended with a satisfying "button."

Sometimes the button was tying up loose ends. 

Other times it was more open ended: a question was left unanswered, an uncomfortable moment that remained unresolved, a setup for a later payoff, etc.

Buttons gave me confidence that the story was making progress and kept me reading.

ex. "SY: You know, Larry - how we handle ourselves, in this situation - it's so impawtant.

LARRY: Uh-huh.

SY: Absolutely. Judith told me that she broke the  news to you. She said you were very adult.

LARRY: Did she.

SY: Absolutely. The respect she has for you.


SY: Absolutely. But the children, Larry. The children.

He shakes his head.

...The most impawtant.

LARRY: Well, I guess...

SY: Of coss. And Judith says they're handling it so well. A tribute to you. Do you drink wine? Because this is an incredible bottle. This is not Mogen David. This is a wine, Larry. A bawdeaux.

LARRY: You know, Sy --

SY: Open it - let it breathe. Ten minutes. Letting it breathe, so impawtant.

LARRY: Thanks, Sy, but I'm not --

SY: I insist! No reason for discumfit. I'll be uncumftable if you don't take it. These are isgns and tokens, Larry.

LARRY: I'm just - I'm not ungrateful, I'm, I just don't know a lot about wine and given our respective, you --

He is startled when Sy abruptly hugs him.

SY: S'okay.

He finishes the hug off with a couple of thumps on the back.

...S'okay. Wuhgonnabe fine."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Button your scenes.  Let the reader know where you're going.

A Serious Man (2009)(draft dated 6/4/07)
by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Monday, October 19, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Burn After Reading (2008) - Fierce, Exaggerated Pursuit = Farce

[Quick Summary: After a fired CIA man's draft manuscript goes missing, several idiots scramble around, trying to capitalize on it.]

My two cents on this script:  Just go with it.

It's not the finest, or the smartest, or the most clever.

However, there is a clarity of writing in this script that I admire.

Here, each character has got immense, single-minded drive, i.e., they pursue a clearly defined goal without hesitation from beginning to end.

These characters are so fierce, so exaggerated in their pursuit that it becomes farce. 

In the scene below, Osbourne (CIA man) has just been fired, yet his wife only cares about cheeses.  As you'll see, this is about not hearing what is being said.

ex. "KATIE: You're home.

Osbourne continues making himself a drink.

OSBOURNE: Hang on to your hat, honey. I have some news. I -

KATIE: Did you pick up the cheeses?


KATIE: Were they ready? I didn't know you were coming home this early.

OSBOURNE (blank): The cheeses.

Katie rolls her eyes.

KATIE: I left a message for you to stop at Todaro's. The Magruders and the Pfarrers are coming over.

OSBOURNE: The Pfarrers? Ugh. I --what did Kathleen say?

KATIE: What?

OSBOURNE: When you left the message?

KATIE: She said. She would give you. The message.

OSBOURNE: Well she, I don't know, I guess we had bigger news today. My day didn't revolve arou-

KATIE: SO you didn't get the cheeses.

OSBOURNE: Well, since I didn't get the message, no, I didn't get the cheeses. But hang on to your hat, I -

KATIE: Oh for fuck's sake, Ozzie, you mean I have to go out again? All right, well, you better get dressed.

OSBOURNE: Honey, we have to talk.

KATIE: Not right now. They'll be here in, what, less than an hour."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The single minded, exaggerated pursuits of goals (farce) makes the point of missed communication far better than a drama would have.

Burn After Reading (2008)
by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Monday, October 12, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: No Country for Old Men (2007) - A Helpful Tip Toward a Perfect Movie (vs. Perfect Screenplay)

[Quick Summary: A hunter, who steals $2M dollars from a crime scene, goes on the run.]

Screenwriter John Gary said in an interview:
I started reading things and seeing them go up onscreen eventually. I was like, "Oh, that script was great. What the hell happened?" It's because there can be a disconnect between what reads like butter but just isn't a great blueprint. There are some writers who get that, who know how to write scripts that end up great movies. And being able to read a script and think of it not as just a script but rather as a blueprint for making a film is something we often get away from as writers - our focus is so much on how to write the perfect screenplay, when what we really need to focus on is how to write the perfect movie. And those two things can be different. 
This Coens script is an excellent example of writing a MOVIE vs. the perfect screenplay.

I like it because it focuses on the interesting things the characters do (vs. lot of dialogue, or trying too hard, or trying to outsmart the audience).

In the example below, note:
-  the interesting way the bad guy (Chigurh) gets a door open
-  how the writers use action verbs and descriptive words to draw the sequence for our mind's eye


We follow it being toted along a gravel path and up three shallow steps to a trailer door. [Action #1]

A hand rises to knock. Tubing runs out of the sleeve and into the fist clenched to knock. The door rattles under the knock. A short beat. [#2, 3, 4 actions in a row]

The hand opens to press the nozzle at the end of the tube against the lock cylinder. [#5 action]

A sharp report. [Result of action #1-5]


A cylinder of brass from the door slams into the far wall denting it and drops to the floor and rolls. [Reaction]

Reverse on the door. Daylight shows through the lock. [Another angle of reaction]

The door swings slowly in and Chigurh, hard backlit, enters." [He achieves goal.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm reminded again that the end product (a film) is a visual medium.

Thus, my scripts need to be more visual, i.e., I must learn to draw better pictures with words.

No Country for Old Men (2007)(draft dated 11/28/07)
Adapted by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Monday, October 5, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Ladykillers (2004) - One Great Adjective

[Quick Summary: Five robbers dig an access tunnel from a boarding house basement to a casino's vault.]

I did not like this script,
I wish I did.
It tries to be outlandish
(I'd rather it be hid.)

I did like this description,
I hope you will agree.
"Dry-washing" gave me a picture
And peaked my curiosity.


As Mrs. Munson swings open the door.

G.H. Door stands on the stoop mournfully dry-washing his hands and obsequiously ducking his head."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you're lucky enough to find that one great adjective, it can capture the whole scene.

The Ladykillers (2004)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Based on the 1955 movie, "The Ladykillers", by William Rose

Monday, September 28, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Intolerable Cruelty (2003) - Making A Talking Head Scene Interesting

[Quick Summary: Expert divorce attorney falls for an alluring serial divorcee.]

I scratched my head a little on this script.

The bad news is that I have no idea why it's not a screwball comedy (because it could've been).

The good news is:
- It reads incredibly fast.
- I was never bored.
- Even the "talking head" scenes between two characters are funny and interesting.

What's one secret to interesting talking head scenes?

Answer: Something else is happening simultaneously (which affects the conversation).

In the scene below, the lawyers (Miles, Ruth) are negotiating terms of a divorce.

At the same time, the clients (Marylin, Rex) are connecting.  Is this a possible reconciliation? If so, it would affect the lawyers' negotiations.

ex. "MILES: Why only fifty percent, Ruth? Why not ask for a hundred percent?

RUTH: Oh brother. Here we go.

MILES: Why not a hundred and fifty percent?

RUTH: Yes. Maybe you're right, Miles. Maybe we're being too conservative. Seventy-five percent.

Rex winces. Rubs his stomach. Marylin leans forward and whispers to him.

MARYLIN: Do you need a Tagamet?

REX: You have some?

She removes a pack of the tablets from her purse, along with several vials of prescription drugs.

MARYLIN: These are yours....

She hands the pills to a grateful Rex. Their hands touch for a moment.

MARYLIN: Have you been taking your digestive enzymes?

REX (contrite): Sometimes I forget.

She looks at him like a concerned parent. Miles and Ruth watch the interaction.

MARYLIN (to the attorneys): I'm sorry. Where were we?"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Talking head scenes are more interesting if something else is simultaneously going on that may/may not affect the talking heads.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003)(1st draft, 3/25/97)
Based on story by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone, John Romano
Screenplay by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Monday, September 21, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) - Both Talking/Not Talking About One's Feelings

[Quick Summary: Three escaped convicts have four days to reach their buried treasure.]

I have two thoughts on this script:

1 - It has several great moments, but...well, the story eluded me.

Critic Roger Ebert put it more eloquently:
I left the movie uncertain and unsatisfied....I had the sense of invention set adrift; of a series of bright ideas wondering why they had all been invited to the same film.
2 - However, I did think this line of dialogue captures the complexity of the Southern language:

"The men head for the station, with Junior lagging.

PAPPY: Shake a leg, Junior! Thank God your mama died givin' birth - if she'd a seen ya she'd a died of shame..."

Note that:
- The words are colorful.
- AND they are funny.
- AND on the surface, they seem to project feelings on to a 3rd person (mama).
- BUT they are really about the speaker's feelings (Pappy).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I find that Southern language is complex and sometimes contradictory because it's more INDIRECT.

ex. Pappy doesn't talk about his own feelings, while talking about his feelings.

O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Monday, September 14, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Big Lebowski (1998) - Gap Filling

[Quick Summary: The Dude, an inept courier, loses (and then locates) the ransom money for a kidnapping victim.]

Reading a Coens' script reminds me that I don't have to show every single moment.

The audience's mind will fill in the gaps.

For example:

Scene #1 (below): Brandt is a rich man's assistant and offers the Dude a job as a courier. 

Scene #2 (below): The Dude tells his friends about it back at the bowling alley.

Question: Did he accept the job? How do we know?

"BRANDT: Mr. Lebowski is prepared to make a generous offer to you to act as courier once we get instructions for the money.

DUDE: Why me, man?

BRANDT: He suspects that the culprits might be the very people who, uh, soiled your rug, and you're in a unique position to confirm, or, uh, disconfirm that suspicion.

DUDE: So he thinks it's the carpet-pissers, huh?

BRANDT: Well Dude, we just don't know.

.... [At the bowling alley] BACK TO WALTER AND THE DUDE

They have been joined by Donny.

WALTER: Anyway. How much they offer you?

DUDE: Twenty grand. And of course I still keep the rug.

WALTER: Just for making the hand-off?

DUDE: Yeah.

He slips a little black box out of his shirt pocket.

DUDE: ...They gave Dude a beeper, so whenever these guys call --"

Answer: Yes, he took the job.  We know this because the Dude is acting like he has the job and we see that he has the beeper.  

We don't need to see him actually taking the beeper. It is enough that he has it.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Jumps in time are ok. As long as there's a logical leap between scenes, the audience will be able to fill in the gaps.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Monday, September 7, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Hudsucker Proxy (1994) - What Slapstick Looks Like on the Page

[Quick Summary: The Hudsucker Board hires a well meaning college graduate to run the company into the ground and drive down stock prices.]

This is what slapstick looks like on the page:

1) It will be longer than you think.
2) It needs to be more descriptive than you think (audience needs to see both actions & reactions).

ex. "Findlandsen raises his hand to look quizzically at Norville's handkerchief which he now holds himself, apparently having been given it during the handshake. [Action]

He hands it back to Norville.

NORVILLE: Thank you, sir...

He stuffs it nervouly into his outside breast pocket as Findlandsen stares at him. [Reaction] Mussburger stands watching him in the executive at-ease, hands dug into his pockets.

NORVILLE: ...I understand your concern about the down-ward you know, but I think you'll find under our strong new leadership...

As Norville's hand drops from his breast pocket the handkerchief, perhaps caught on his sleeve, whips out of the pocket and follows his hand down. [Action]

Findlandsen looks down and Norville follows his look, and stoops BELOW FRAME to retrieve the hanky. [Reaction]

Findlandsen leans quizzically forward and peers down at Norville, who continues, O.S. [Action]

NORVILLE (O.S.): We anticipate, in short order, an upward...

In rapid fire, Norville straightens up into -- crunch -- Findlandsen, whose head snaps back, eyes rolling, a hand pressed to his nose, drink sloshing [Reaction]; Norville, on hand pressed to the back of his own head and the other wildly waving his hanky for balance, takes a staggering step forward onto the toe of an elegantly-gowned MRS. FINDLANDSEN. [Action]

MRS. FINDLANDSEN: Ahhh!"[Reaction]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Slapstick takes a bit of time to describe on the page.

Don't freak out (like me) if there's not a whole lot of white space.

Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Monday, August 31, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Barton Fink (1991) - Transitions = A Gradual Awareness

[Quick Summary: A budding NY playwright goes to Hollywood in the 1930s, and descends into a hellish nightmare.]

I understood this script, but I just didn't get it what it means. *

Is this story a dark comedy? Or horror? A dream? All? None?

I have no idea.

However, I did think there was an accurate portrayal of writer's block.

I particularly liked the segue from block to interaction with another person.

It's not a sudden transition, but a gradual awareness for Barton.


Looking down at the page.


Swinging in the legwell.

One foot idly swings over to nudge a pair of nicely shined shoes from where they rest, under the secretary, into the legwell. [Transition starting here.]

We hear typing start.


A new paragraph being started: "A large man..."


As he slides them into the shoes. [Second hint.]


"A large man in tights..."

The typing stops.


Looking quizzically at the page. What's wrong?


Sliding back and forth - swimming - in his shoes, which are several sizes too large. [Third hint.]

We hear a knock at the door.


He rises and answers the door.

Charlie stands smiling in the doorway, holding a pair of nicely shined shoes.

CHARLIE: I hope these are your shoes." [Full transition to next beat.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Transitioning the reader from one beat to the next starts much further back than you might realize.

Barton Fink (1991)
by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

* Some people hate the ambiguity; others like it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Miller's Crossing (1990) - Messy is Good for Story

[Quick Summary: Adviser to a mob boss is caught between the boss and a competing boss.]

I have it on good authority (teachers, human resources) that Millenials, who grow up with instant internet answers, find it hard to adjust to the messiness of real life.

By "messiness of real life," I mean:

- Waiting
- Unanswered questions (AN answer isn't enough. They want THE correct answer.)
- No guarantees
- Making mistakes

However, it is this very messiness that makes life (and stories) real and interesting.

This script is full of messy decisions which is great for conflict.

In this scene below, Tom tries to get Verna to admit she did or did not shoot Rug.

She distracts him and the question is unanswered in favor of more romantic action.

This could've been a very formulaic cliffhanger, but notice how the writers bring out Tom's feelings for Verna and that they get in the way of his job. 

ex. "He looks at her. She holds his gaze.

VERNA: You think I murdered someone. Come on, Tom, you know me a little.

TOM: Nobody knows anybody --not that well.

VERNA: You know or you wouldn't be here.

TOM: Not at all, sugar. I came to hear your side of the story --how horrible Rug was, how he goaded you into it, how he tried to shake you down --

VERNA: That's not why you came either.

He shrugs.

TOM: Tell me why I came.

Verna looks at him.

VERNA: The oldest reason there is.

TOM: There are friendlier places to drink.

VERNA: Why can't you admit it?

TOM: Admit what?

VERNA: Admit you don't like me seeing Lee because you're jealous. Admit it isn't all cool calculation with you --that you've got a heart --even i it's small and feeble and you can't remember the last time you used it.

TOM: If I'd known we were going to cast our feelings into words I'd have memorized the Song of Solomon.

Verna smiles."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Messy is good for story.

Miller's Crossing (1990)
by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Monday, August 17, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Raising Arizona (1987) - Misunderstandings & Visual Gags

[Quick Summary: A felon kidnaps a baby for his wife, and it all falls apart.]

I liked this script because it isn't trying too hard to be clever or too polished.

I also liked that the Coens didn't shy from anything - visual gags, word gags, over the top characters, etc. - it was all fair game as long as it made them laugh.

Example 1: Misunderstanding

"MOSES: An' when they was no crawdad to  be foun', we ate San'.

HI: You ate what?

MOSES (nodding): We ate San'.

HI: You ate sand?!

MOSES: Dass right..."

Example 2:  Visual Gag

"All of the [five] babies have been replaced in the crib but not lying down: They are seated in a row, staring back at her, lined up against the far crib railing, like a small but distinguished panel on "Meet the Press."

Example 3: Transition to a Visual Gag

"Throughout the speech NATHAN stalks the room, working himself into a frenzy, furiously putting coffee cups onto coasters, generally cleaning up, hectoring the police, and swiping their feet off his furniture.

NATHAN:...Hell, that's your forte, trackin' down them microbes left by criminals'n commies'n shit! That's yer whole damn raison d'i&tre! No leads?! I want Nathan Jr. back, or whichever the hell one they took! He's out there somewhere! Somethin' leads to him! And anyone can find him know the difference between a lead and a hole in the ground!!


Specifically, it is the hole in the muddy patch of earth that GALE and EVELLE climbed out of. "

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I chuckled at the picture of a hole in the ground. (That's how I knew the visual gag was properly setup.)

Raising Arizona (1987)
by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Monday, August 10, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Blood Simple (1984) - How Not To Rely on Dialogue

[Quick Summary: A man hires a hitman to off his cheating wife and her lover, but it all goes awry.]

People like to quote movie lines as shorthand:

- "You can't handle the truth!" ---> You're avoiding things.
- "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." ---> I've got the upper hand.
- "Go ahead, make my day." ---> Don't cross me.

People also think that this is what writers do, i.e., come up with dialogue.

However, we writers know that it's the least important part.
The bulk of our job is to structure visuals and conflict (building the cake). The dialogue is the last part (frosting).  Without the cake, the frosting falls.

This script does an excellent job of emphasizing visuals first.

Because of this, the dialogue has a greater impact.

In the example below, Marty has just hired Visser, a sleezy p.i., to off Marty's wife.  Visser has just told Marty to get out of town for an alibi.


Marty is slumped in his seat, not responding to the fact that Visser has just ended the conversation. [Visser is in charge.]

Finally he rouses himself and gets out of the car, leaving Visser staring at the door he has left open behind him. [We see Marty as a sad, weak figure.]

After a moment, we hear Marty's footsteps approaching again, and he leans back into the open door with an afterthought. [He returns?! Second thoughts?]

MARTY: I'll take care of the money, you just make sure those bodies aren't found...There's a... [His behavior says he's sure, but his words scream unsure.]

These words are difficult to say.

MARTY: ...If you want, there's a big incinerator behind my place... [His offer to help is lame since we just saw that Visser is going to take all the risk.]

The two men look at each other. Marty leaves. After a moment, Visser leans over to grab the handle of the still open door.

VISSER (under breath): Sweet Jesus, you are disgusting. [This line has added punch. Visser despises his client but is despicable himself.]

The door slams."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Rely on visuals and conflict first, then the dialogue will shine.

Rely on dialogue first, then visuals and conflict will fail.

Blood Simple (1984)
by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Monday, August 3, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Mission Impossible 2 (2000) - How Do We Know These Guys are Friends?

[Quick Summary: Superspy Ethan Hunt must track down the antidote to a disease that may infect millions.]

Let's say you're writing the second installment in a successful franchise.

How do you introduce the characters so that:

- We know these are friends of long standing, AND
- New viewers know how these characters are related, AND
- Seasoned viewers aren't bored?

A couple ways are to show:

- They share a similar sensibility (humor, sports teams, hobbies, etc.).
- They communicate in a common shorthand.


Billy and Luther emerge, Luther with computer looking acutely uncomfortable in a wrinkled suit.

ETHAN'S VOICE: Welcome to Australia, mate.

They look up to a smiling Ethan who points to the ground beneath Luther's feet. Luther looks down to see that he is standing in a pile of sheep-shit.

LUTHER: Thanks - mate.

Both men laugh and all three move to..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: We know characters are friends because we can see their ease with each another.

Mission Impossible 2 (2000)
by Robert Towne
Story by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga

Monday, July 27, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Troy (2004) - Making the Reader Feel

[Quick Summary: Two Spartan brothers (Agamemnon, Menelaus) retaliate against two Trojan brothers (Hector, Paris).]

Last week, I saw this tweet from a screenwriter I admire:
TROY by David “Game of Thrones money” Benioff is one of the scripts I give aspiring screenwriters to read. That’s how it’s done.
Other writers chimed in and agreed that not a line is wasted.*

First, I too am impressed at the economy of writing.

The writer boils down a complex war story to brother vs. brother, and Troy brothers vs. Spartan brothers.

Second, I am impressed how deeply the script made me feel.

Perhaps the reason is that we always know:
1) What is at stake.
2) What are the motives.

Things to know about the scene below:
- Hector (older) and Paris (younger) are brothers and princes of Troy.
- They have just left Sparta after negotiating a peace treaty.
- Paris has smuggled Helen, the Spartan king's wife, aboard their ship.
- Paris' action will launch a war between Sparta and Troy.


Paris pauses in front of his cabin door.

PARIS: Before you get angry with me -- [Younger brother tries to avoid anger.]

HECTOR: Open the door. [Older brother isn't messing around.]

Paris opens the door. Helen, wearing a hooded robe, sits on the edge of a hammock, swinging slightly. She stands. Hector stares at her in disbelief. He turns and glares at Paris.  [The script guides our eye: Open door. See her. See Hector's reaction. See his action.]

HECTOR: If you weren't my brother I'd kill you where you stand. [He is mad b/c his brother has jeopardized their new treaty via this woman.]

PARIS: Hector --  [Paris needs Hector to help him out of this mess.]

Hector is already out the door. Helen looks at Paris.

HELEN: We'll never have peace. [This is what's at stake.]

PARIS: I don't want peace. I want you. [This is his motive.]

He kisses her -- a desperate, hungry kiss, the two of them against the world -- then turns and follows his brother. [Simple yet complicated emotions together, i.e., I love her + I need help to be with her.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To make the reader feel, keep the characters' motives and stakes crystal clear at all times.

Troy (2004)
By David Benioff
Based on Homer's poems

*They also agreed the script was better than the film.

Monday, July 20, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) - A Key to Romantic Chemistry

[Quick Summary: A movie fan falls in love with a fictional character (who walks off of the screen to be with her) and the real actor who plays him.]

Great romantic chemistry is hard to define.

Billy Mernit comes to the rescue with help:
That special kind of romantic "sympatico" doesn't come out of mere body heat and thin air. Your job as a writer is to forge such a bond by digging as deep as you can into your protagonists' characterizations. What you're looking for is the subtext hidden inside the old cliche, "opposites attract." Two people who seem to be opposites are not automatically magnetic. But they may well have interlocking needs (p. 80).
Note the last two sentences:

1) Putting together opposites does NOT AUTOMATICALLY make them magnetic.
2) But there's a better chance when characters have interlocking needs &/or are incomplete (p. 81).

In this story, these are the opposites:
- Tom is a courageous, privileged, and 100% fictional character. He needs help becoming "real."
- Cecilia is a dreamy, hard working, practical waitress.  She needs hope and whimsy.

ex.  Tom has just tried to pay for dinner with his play money. He and Cecilia walk around a carousel.

"TOM (O.S.): I'm sorry about the money. I had no idea.

CECILIA (O.S.): Oh, that's okay. (Chuckling) It's, it's not going to be so easy to get along without it in this world. [She gently reminds him to be realistic.]

TOM (O.S.): Oh, I guess I have to get a job (Sighs) [He changes because of her.]

The camera stops as it comes to the couple, who are sitting in a chariot. Tom's arm is around Cecilia's shoulders. They look at each other, illuminated by the moonlight.

CECILIA (Inhaling): But that's not going to be so easy, either. Right now, the whole country's out of work. [She's honest with him.]

TOM: Well, then we'll live on love. We'll have to make some concessions, but so what? We'll have each other. [He speaks of their future which gives her hope.]

CECILIA: That's movie talk. [She enjoys this real life fantasy.]

The camera moves closer and closer to their faces. Romantic piano music beings to play.

TOM (Looking softly at Cecilia): You look so beautiful in this light. [He admires.]

CECILIA (Looking into Tom's eyes): But you're not real. [She brings him to earth.]

Tom looks at Cecilia, then kisses her.

TOM (Breaking the kiss, sighing): Was that real enough for you?

CECILIA (Sighing): You, you kiss perfectly. It's what I dreamed kissing would be like. [For once, her reality is better than her dreams.]"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Romantic chemistry blooms when A meets B's needs (& vice versa).

Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
by Woody Allen
Published in Three Films by Woody Allen (1987)

Monday, July 13, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Broadway Danny Rose (1984) - Winding Up for the Sucker Punch

[Quick Summary: Talent manager Danny Rose desperately tries to persuade his client's girlfriend to show up for the client's big night.]

Woody Allen wrote this script, so I knew a sucker punch would eventually come.

However, I was truly surprised how much it still stung.

I think one reasons is that the wind up to the punch really intensified the punch.

Here's why:

1)  I really invested in Danny Rose, who went to extremes for clients that no one else wanted. (EMPATHY)

ex. He clients include a blind xylophone player, a penguin act, a hypnotist.
ex. He is devoted to Lou, a has-been lounge singer, and picks out Lou's songs, clothes, and even eats with Lou's family.

2) The punch starts moving toward Danny Rose, but it takes awhile.  The hurt builds and coils like a spring, which is where all the power lies. (WIND UP; SUSPENSE)  

- Bigwigs are coming to see Lou sing. This might be his big break into tv.
- Lou is married but has a volatile girlfriend, Tina.
- Lou won't perform unless Tina comes. He asks Danny Rose to get her there.
- Tina is mad and has other plans. She takes off and Danny Rose pursues.
- Danny Rose has many crazy, fun mis-adventures with Tina.
- She starts to like him but is conflicted.  In flashback, we see her make a bad decision that will affect Danny Rose.

3) The punch lands.  It stings much more strongly than I thought. 

Danny Rose is betrayed. It hurts bad.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked how flashback was used well in the wind up phase.

It is not used to explain Tina in the PAST (boring).

It is actually used to further complicate Tina in the PRESENT (interesting), as well as Danny Rose.

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
by Woody Allen
Published in Three Films by Woody Allen (1987)

Monday, July 6, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Zelig (1983) - How Voice Over Can Help a Satire

[Quick Summary: In the 1920s, a psychiatrist tries to help Zelig, an actual human chameleon who has lost his identity.]

I tip my hat to Woody Allen on this script.

It's not perfect, but it's one of the most unique ideas I've seen in ages.

Zelig unconsciously adopts to whomever is in his surroundings, including attitude, skin color, etc. If he's with Asians, he acts/speaks/looks Asian. 

He shows up at big historical events, becomes famous, and then disaster follows.  The public celebrates Zelig, then demonizes, then celebrates him.

I thought the choice to use of frequent narrated voice over was odd for this satire. However, it began to make sense in hindsight.

Satire uses ridicule and exaggeration to make a point. 

I think this script is satirizing how public opinion can turn on a dime.

The script uses voice over:
1) to lead us through the public's thought processes, and then
2) to exaggerate it to poke fun.

ex. "NARRATOR'S VOICE-OVER: That Zelig could be responsible for the behavior of each of the personalities he assumed means dozens of lawsuits. [He had no idea what he was doing, but let's still make him responsible!]

The film moves inside the courthouse, where the presiding judge is seen over the shoulders of the packed room. Lawyers walk back and forth in front of the seated spectators, exchanging documents, talking among themselves in clusters, going up to the judge. As the narrator continues, the film cuts to a somber-looking Zelig, sitting at a table with his lawyer. His hands are clasped in his lap.

NARRATOR'S VOICE-OVER: He is used for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages, and performing unnecessary dental extractions. [He's liable for the kitchen sink!!]"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: In satire, voice over can be used to state the premise, then ridicule it.

Zelig (1983)
by Woody Allen
Published in Three Films by Woody Allen (1987)

Monday, June 29, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Stardust Memories (1980) - Seeing What the Writer Saw

[Quick Summary: A comedy filmmaker unsuccessfully tries to break new ground.]

1 - I want script readers to "get" my scripts, i.e., they see what I'm seeing in my head.

So when I read a script that I don't get (like this one), I tend to take a closer look.

This story begins with a popular comedy filmmaker who now wants to make a serious drama. However, the public just wants more of his early stuff.

The filmmaker experiences/complains about the pressures of sycophants, women, family, etc....and then nothing happens.

So WHAT IS THE POINT? I couldn't see what the writer was aiming for.

2 - Here's one scene that was clear, and juggled pathos and comedy as well:

WALKING MAN (Overlapping Sandy's speech): Are you Sandy Bates?
SANDY (To the man, trying to get rid of him) Uh, no. (To Isobel) The kids will probably be starved.
WALKING MAN: Yes, you are.
SANDY (Shaking his head, trying to get rid of the man): Uh, no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not.
WALKING MAN: My mother buys meat in the same butcher shop your mother does.
SANDY (Laughing): Oh, great.
WALKING MAN (Handing Sandy a piece of paper): Can I have your autograph?
SANDY (Reacting): Oh, Jesus.
WALKING MAN: Could you just write "To Phyllis Weinstein, you unfaithful, lying bitch"?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One tip is whatever characters do, they must experience consequences. 

If nothing happens, I'm 99% uninterested.

Stardust Memories (1980)
by Woody Allen
Four Films of Woody Allen (book published 1982)

Monday, June 22, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Interiors (1978) - How to End a Fight When There Are No Easy Answers

[Quick Summary: When a father decides to divorce and remarry, his three daughters grapple how to cope.]

I admire this script because it's realistic, sometimes uncomfortably so, but not in a depressing way.

In this story:
- Mom is permanently unhinged.
- Dad is ready to move on with a new wife.
- Daughter Renata (poet) has a husband who feels threatened by her success.
- Daughter Joey (photographer) feels second banana to Renata.
- Daughter Flyn (actress) has go-nowhere career.

I liked that each character has a strong POV and issues that conflict with the others.

However, how do you resolve the conflict if both sides are sound?

How do you resolve a scene when there are no easy answers?

I learned from reading this script that:
1) You do not have to have a nice neat resolution at the end of a scene.
2) How the character comes to terms with the argument can happen off screen.
3) #2 above will work as long as all the issues are presented on screen (#1).

The scene below is the tail end of yet another argument about Mom.

Notice that:
- There is no tidy resolution at the end.
- The scene ends without an "a-ha!" moment.
- The scene lays out the issues, i.e., Joey's resentment. 
- If you read the full script, you'll see this conversation have an impact (albeit off screen). We know this because they act differently after this scene.

ex." RENATA: Look, Joey...I can't help it if you feel guilty about your feelings toward Mother. I mean, you-you-you can't seem to do enough to make up for it.

JOEY (looking at RENATA): Hey, what's that supposed to mean?

RENATA: You know what it means. You could never stand her.

JOEY (Upset): I-I don't believe this. My whole life I've only wanted to be her.

RENATA: Yeah...well, for a while there you were her, weren't you?

JOEY (Shaking her head): I don't know what you're talking about.

RENATA: Oh, Joey, you know what I'm talking about! All those headaches every time she'd come home from the hospital. You never wanted her to come home.

JOEY: This is incredible. I mean, you twist everything I say. I-I-I give up!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Characters don't have to resolve every fight on screen.

Interiors (1978)
by Woody Allen
Four Films of Woody Allen (book published 1982)

Monday, June 15, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - Constructed for Maximum Emotion

[Quick Summary: A NYC couple are convinced their neighbor has killed his wife.]

What makes a Woody Allen film so special?

Most people, including me, would say, "It's the dialogue."

I still think that's true, but the springboard is that his scripts are first constructed for maximum emotion.

ex. In this story, Carol and Larry meet their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. House.

Soon, Mrs. House disappears.

Carol thinks Mr. House killed Mrs. House, but Larry doesn't believe her.
However, an attractive single friend, Ted, does, and she gravitates toward him.

Larry is unsure how to deal, so he connects with Marcia at work. She becomes interested in the mystery as well.

In the first half of the script, Larry is jealous of Carol and Ted

--> Larry resists helping Carol (& thus getting her to her goal).
---> This pushes Carol closer to Ted.
---> This is uncomfortable for Larry.

In the second half, Carol is jealous of Marcia's positive effect on Larry and Ted.

---> Larry and Marcia become more involved in the mystery
---> Larry solves things, Marcia looks smart.
---> This is bittersweet for Carol.

Once this framework is in place, it's no wonder the dialogue really sparkles:

CAROL: I told Ted.
LARRY: You told Ted before you told me?
CAROL: Yeah. He's more open-minded about these things.
LARRY: Yes, I know. I'm-I'm-I'm a bore. I'm-Because I-Because I-Because I don't break the law, you know?
CAROL: Yeah.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Do the heavy lifting first. Dialogue later.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
by Woody Allen

Monday, June 8, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Clue (1985) - Mysterious Before Funny

[Quick Summary: Blackmailed dinner guests have 45 min. to figure out who among them killed the blackmailer. Based on the board game. ]

This script delivers what it promises.


It seems like it's all FUNNY, but not if you actually look at the construction.

The writers did the heavy lifting: They constructed the MYSTERY first, then added the FUNNY.

In other words, the script was built first with the story, then the comedy added.

Note how much exposition is laid down in this funny scene:

ex. "MRS. WHITE: Yes, just the five. Husbands should be like Kleenex - strong, soft, and disposable.

COLONEL MUSTARD: So, you don't believe in marriage?

MRS. WHITE: I certainly do. Perhaps it's because I was educated in a convent, but I'm in the habit.

COLONEL MUSTARD: You lure men to their death like a spider with flies.

MRS. WHITE: You're right. Flies are where men are most vulnerable.

COLONEL MUSTARD (very uncomfortable): Well, if it wasn't you, who was it? Who had the dagger? It was you, wasn't it, Mrs. Peacock?"

We've learned:
- Mrs. White had 5 husbands.
- Mrs. White doesn't mind losing those husbands. (Makes us curious why.)
- Mrs. White is clever enough to absolve herself of any motive.

But it's also funny because:
- There's funny simile (husband like Kleenex).
- There's a play on imagery (convent - habit).
- There's play on words (flies).

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You can be funny & mysterious, as long as the mystery comes before the funny.

Clue (1985)(shooting script) part 1 and part 2
by Jonathan Lynn
Story by John Landis & Jonathan Lynn

Monday, June 1, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: M (1931) - Establishing That Dark & Creepy Noir Tone

[Quick Summary: A child murderer is on the loose in 1930s Berlin.]

The Turner Classic Movie channel (TCM) is sponsoring "TCM Summer of Darkness," a film noir festival every Friday in June and July.

It is also sponsoring "Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir," a FREE e-course to go along with the programming.*  I plan to follow along (and hope you do too).

(FYI: I also hope to read a bunch of these scripts for the blog.)

No film noir festival would be complete without M.

Why? Because M explores the dark and creepy, but with a specific idea/message, as good films should.  Here, I think it's about taking action when feeling helpless.

How? From page one, it establishes the dark and creepy tone.

Note that the visual is of innocence and exclusion together:


FADE IN on a HIGH ANGLE - A group of children, standing in a circle, play a game. In the center of the circle, a LITTLE GIRL points her finger from one child to another in rhythm with the chant. [High angle peers down like an all seeing eye.]

LITTLE GIRL (chants): Just you wait a little while, The evil man in black will come. And with his little chopper, He will chop you up. [Innocent kids are playing a bloodthirsty game, as kids do.]

The LITTLE GIRL stops in front of one of her playmates and gestures for her to leave the circle.

LITTLE GIRL: You're out. [The kids aren't worried about the evil man out there (though we are).]

The child leaves the circle and the game continues." [This summarizes the whole film - kids leave and life continues.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One way to establish a dark and creepy tone is to amplify unease, ex. juxtapose two contrasting emotions like innocence and exclusion.

M (1931)
by Thea von Harbou & Fritz Lang

* If you don't have cable, you can still take the class because each lesson comes with links to publicly available clips.

Monday, May 25, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Angel Heart (1987) - Handling Exposition Two Ways

[Quick Summary: 1950s NYC detective digs into Louisiana voodoo culture in order to find whether a missing entertainer is alive or dead.]

I'd never heard of this film before.

It's shockingly creepy. 
And well written.
And gross here and there (if you read it, you'll understand).
And originally got an "X" rating from the MPAA.

Writer/director Alan Parker knew exposition is troublesome (here):
As with all traditional first-person detective tales, the fundamental problem is in the translation of literary exposition into filmic narrative. (Consequently, the over-use of voice-over in this genre.) This was something I wanted to avoid, although, unavoidably a line or two did sneak into my final cut for sheer economy of story telling.
A) Plain Exposition - Often, he handled the exposition simply:

ex. "CYPHRE: Do you by chance remember the name Johnny Favorite?

HARRY: Er yeah, wasn't he a crooner with one of them swing bands -- before the war.

CYPHRE: That's him. He sang with the Spider Simpson orchestra. An overnight sensation as the press agents like to put it. Personally, I loathed the music, the tunes he recorded escape me, there were several, but he created a near riot at the Paramount Theatre long before anyone had heard of Mr. you recall him at all, Mr. Angel?"

B) Exposition + Character

But Parker doesn't just dole out exposition all the time (which is boring).  He knew when to add splashes of character, which oils the scene.

Notice how Harry's small talk wins over the nurse. She now is eager to help him.

ex. "HARRY: Liebling. Jonathan Liebling. Of course all information will be treated with the utmost confidentiality.

NURSE: One moment please.


squeaking on the shiny clean floor.

Lysol. Harry sniffs and looks at the pretty legs.

HARRY: Were you working last weekend?

The nurse is looking through the files.

NURSE: No. I was at my sister's wedding.

HARRY: Catch the bouquet?

NURSE: No such luck.

HARRY: Nice guy?


HARRY: The husband.

NURSE: An old guy. Loaded.

Smile. Slight but real. She returns with an open manilla folder.

We did have a Mr. Liebling, but it says here he was transferred.

HARRY: When?

NURSE: Years ago. December '45.

She twists the file around and shows it to Harry."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Often, you'll have Plain Exposition.  However, if you can, add Exposition + Character.

Angel Heart (1987) 
by Alan Parker
Based upon the novel,"Falling Angel," by William Hjortsberg

Monday, May 18, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Lady from Shanghai (1947) - Good Motive = Good Misdirection

[Quick Summary: A man is sucked into a noir mystery with a woman, her jealous husband, and his business partner.]

3 Reasons That This Script is Worth Reading:*

1) I didn't see the end coming.
2) Rita Hayworth thought so much of the script that she wanted to be in the film, even though she and Welles were estranged at the time. (He directed and starred.)
3) It excels at characters with good motives.

I realize more and more that a good motive does not need to be complicated.

However, it does have to be solid enough to give the writer options.

In this mystery-thriller, I learned that one option is to misdirect the audience.

Misdirection is extremely helpful in keeping the suspense buoyant.

ex. In this story, Michael saves Elsa at the park.  He falls for her, but learns that she's married.

The next day, her jealous husband (Bannister) hires Michael as a chauffeur for Elsa. Bannister has also hired Broome as a butler to spy on Elsa and Michael.

Grisby, Bannister's law partner, offers Michael $5000 to shoot someone.

Note that everyone has a juicy motive:

Michael - In love with Elsa
Elsa - Wants out of marriage
Bannister - Jealous of Michael
Broome - Willing to double cross for $$
Grisby - Willing to pay Michael to commit a crime for unknown reasons

Welles then uses these motives to misdirect from the main mystery, i.e.,What do these people involve Michael? Why?

- Michael tries to quit his job...but he stays for Elsa.
- Bannister sends Michael off to drive Elsa...why would he do this?
- Grisby bribes Michael to help him...why is it so important?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Because I was so caught up in the misdirects, the final reveal was truly surprising.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
by Orson Welles

*I think the script is the closest thing to Welles' true vision, since the studio took out about 60 minutes from the film

Monday, May 11, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Buried (2010) - Hope & Fear in a Low Budget, No Budget Thriller

[Quick Summary: American truck driver in Iraq is buried alive for ransom.]

Writer Chris Sparling said here:
I planned on directing [this script] myself. I was going to make it for like five thousand dollars. It was conceived as a low-budget, or no-budget, indie movie.
Unexpectedly, the script went out to producers and then into production all within SIX months!

It has the attractive elements for an indie project:

- Contained thriller story (guy in a coffin)
- One actor
- Clear urgency (he needs to get out)
- Excellent voice (I liked how the writer told the story with confidence)

But how do you keep it interesting for 90 pages without a big budget?

It's not obvious at first, but I think it's the writer's deft use of hope and fear.

Note how clear either hope or fear is in each line:

ex. "Paul is switched to an AUTOMATED MESSAGE.

AUTOMATED MESSAGE: The number you requested, 269-948-1998 can automatically be dialed for a charge of twenty-five cents by pressing the number one. [Another number to call = Fear]

Paul writes Donna's number and name on the top of the coffin and then pressed the number one. He is connected. [Connected = Hope!]

Her phone rings and rings. Paul's frustration is evident. [Fear]

PAUL: Come on! Where the hell is everyone? [Fear]

The phone rings some more. Paul checks the battery life still at one and a half bars. [Ticking clock = Fear]

DONNA eventually answers. [Hope]

DONNA: Hello? [Relief someone answered = Hope]"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This script stood out to me because:
1) The story is told well. Voice. Point of view. Clarity.
2) It delivered the thrills that it promised, i.e., hope or fear at every step.

Buried (2010)
by Chris Sparling

Monday, May 4, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Little Foxes (1941) - How to Call Someone A Liar, Southern Style

[Quick Summary: In the deep south, two brothers and a sister have claws out over an investment. ]

What happens after you call someone out for lying?

Escalation into a fight? Silence? Negotiation?

It depends on the culture.

For instance, this script is based in the American South, where politeness rules.

When someone lies, you may gently point it out, just not directly.

Note in the scene below:

1) How it's done indirectly
2) Regina's response to being calling out
3) Ben's response after she admits it

ex. "BEN (Too casually): You don't think maybe he never started from Baltimore and never intends to start?

REGINA (Irritated): Of course they've started. Didn't I have a letter from Alexandra? What is so strange about people arriving late? He has that cousin in Savannah he's so fond of. He may have stopped to see him. They'll be along today some time, very flattered that you and Oscar are so worried about them....

REGINA (Starts toward dining room): Then you haven't had your breakfast. Come along (Oscar and Leo follow her.)

BEN: Regina. (She turns at dining-room door) That cousin of Horace's has been dead for year and, in any case, the train does not go through Savannah. [He states facts w/o sneering or being rude.]

REGINA (Laughs, continues into dining room, seats herself): Did he die? You're always remembering about people dying. (Ben rises) Now I intend to eat my breakfast in peace, and read my newspaper. [She laughs, sidesteps, and changes the topic.]

BEN (Goes toward dining room as he talks): This is second breakfast for me. My first was bad. Celia ain't the cook she used to be. too old to have taste any more. If she hadn't belonged to Mama, I'd send her off to the country. (Oscar and Leo start to eat. Ben seats himself.)" [He knows she knows, so he goes with the new topic. No extended finger pointing.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Know the rules of the culture in your story, especially if unfamiliar.

Your first instinct might not be appropriate in that setting.

The Little Foxes (1941)*
by Lillian Hellman
Additional scenes & dialogue by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, & Alan Campbell
Based on the stage play by Lillian Hellman

*This is a link to the play because the script is unavailable. The only one I could find in existence was Hellman's original (here).

Monday, April 27, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Manchurian Candidate (1962) - Suspense is Fuel for Thrillers

[Quick Summary: After the Korean War, an intelligence officer is plagued by nightmares that involve a fellow soldier, a Medal of Honor winner.]

So what makes a thriller a THRILLER?

All definitions agree that it must have suspense:
Suspense (n.): 1) a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety; 2) a state of mental indecision.
But what does it look like in practice?

I think the original Manchurian Candidate (1962) is still the gold standard.*

Maj. Marco has nightmares about the war and fellow officer Raymond Shaw.  It is quite a roller coaster ride to find out why.

I was surprised, however, that the best suspense was between Shaw and his mother.

The uncertainty and apprehension is palpable:

ex. "The limo starts up and pulls away from the crowd.

RAYMOND: Who's kidding who, Mother? Johnny's up for re-election in November. You've got it all figured out, haven't you? Johnny Iselin's boy, Medal of Honor winner. That should get you another fifty thousand votes. [He stands up to her.]

MRS. ISELIN: Raymond, I'm your mother. How can you talk to me this way? You know I want nothing for myself, you know that my entire life is devoted to helping you... [Guilt.]

RAYMOND: Mother. [He protests. Is he weakening?]

MRS. ISELIN: ...and to helping Johnny...

RAYMOND: Mother. Mother. [Uh-oh. Indecision. He's weakening.]

Raymond lowers his head and puts his hands over his ears.

MRS. ISELIN: ...My boys. My two little boys... [Duty, loyalty, guilt.]

RAYMOND: Stop it. Stop it. [He feels selfish.]

MRS. ISELIN: ...That is all I have... [She's both manipulative & vulnerable.]

Raymond seems to melt under his mother's barrage of bullshit. [Is he doomed?!!]"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Thrills come from the anxiety/apprehension/indecision that convinces us the story could go either way.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
by George Axelrod
Based on the novel by Richard Condon

* It is 50+ years old and is STILL on every top 10 list.  And has Angela Lansbury. And Frank Sinatra.

Monday, April 20, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Once Upon a Time in America (1984) - Making the Past Relevant

[Quick Summary: In 1968, Noodles recalls daring crimes with his gangster buddies during Prohibition (1920-1930s).]

Sergio Leone said this was his best film.

It is based on a novel by Harry Grey (pseudonym), who wrote a fictionalized account about his childhood friends and Prohibition gangster days.

In 1968, Leone actually met Grey in person.  Leone biographer C. Frayling writes:
[After Leone and Grey met, Leone was] "convinced that the best approach to filming The Hoods would be to have the elderly Noodles revisiting his childhood and youth as a small-time gangster....The passage of time would be the central theme. The film would centre on the pivotal moment in 1933 when Noodles betrays his friends in order to save them, then retreats from the implications of his action.... (underline mine)
I will warn you that this script isn't very pretty on the page and it is very, very long.*

However, if you're really serious, it is worth studying for those time cues alone.

ex.  In the scene below, notice how the writers:

1)  Get in exposition about the past
2)  Raise the past to show it still lies between Noodles and Fat Moe today

The result is that the past becomes relevant to the present.



NOODLES notices the faded upholstery, the sense of neglect and poverty as he follows FAT MOE into the room off the deli.

NOODLES: I often wondered if you 'd taken that million dollars. Now I know. You're on your ass worse than ever. [He knows Moe & has been here before.]

FAT MOE has opened a door and turned on a light. He quickly swivels around to face NOODLES.

FAT MOE: But I thought you - [He thought Noodles was guilty.]

NOODLES: You thought wrong. The suitcase was empty.

Fat Moe steps back to let Noodles into his sanctum sanctorum, then follows him in. [They still trust each other.]

FAT MOE: Then who did?

NOODLES: That's what I been asking myself for thirty years." [Past questions are still unresolved in the present day.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The past is relevant if you can show how it fuels conflict in the present day.

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone
Based on the novel, "The Hoods," by Harry Grey

*Yes, 322 pgs. is too long. However, I think it works here, perhaps because of how the present and past are juxtaposed to play off each other.

Monday, April 13, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Primary Colors (1998) - Showing Motive (By Absenting the Antagonist)

[Quick Summary: A young campaign worker helps a charismatic Southern governor run during the Presidential primary.]

In 1998, I didn't see this film in the theater.

Bill Clinton had just begun a second term, and who needed a story with a parallel "Clinton-like" character?

I wish I would've known then that this story is really about MOTIVES.

The writer, Elaine May, did two smart things in this script:

1) She created an ensemble to show the range of motives.

2) She does not put the candidate, Gov. Stanton, in every scene (as Roger Ebert points out here).

Because of #2, the ensemble must talk about their views on Stanton ---> We see what really drives them.
ex. Skeptical Henry is now working on Stanton's campaign.
March is a reporter and his ex-girlfriend.

"MARCH: And that's the kind of man you want to work for? A man who just wants to get elected?

HENRY: No. I want to work for a man who fights the good fight and then watch a Republican get elected. [Sarcasm reveals a new position.]

MARCH: What's the difference? Can you tell?

HENRY: Yes. I can tell the difference between a man who believes what I believe and lies about it to get elected, and a man who just doesn't give a fuck. And I'll take the liar. [He's gone 180.]

MARCH (staring at him): How did he do this to you?

HENRY: Do what? What are you talking about? Why are you making this guy into the devil? Why don't you, at least, get to know him. Take some time, maybe spend a few days with us here. I miss you, honey, and we could be together...

MARCH: God, I think you'd fuck me to get some good press for Stanton.  [She tells him the truth.]

He stares at her for a moment...then turns and walks away."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Deliberately remove the antagonist from time to time.

It will make the other characters talk and reveal themselves.

Primary Colors (1998)
by Elaine May
Based on the novel by Joe Klein

Monday, April 6, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Birdcage (1996) - Hold Off Releasing the Tension

[Quick Summary: Flamboyant, gay nightclub owners meet their son's financee's straightlaced parents for the first time.]

This script is a smooth read.

In fact, it's so smooth that I didn't realize how fast I was turning pages.

For example, I thought the conflict below happened over 1-2 pages.  It actually happens over five pages. 

One thing that kept me turning was that the tension was not released too soon.

Notice how the tension hovers for four pages * (p. 35-39):

SETUP: (p. 34-35)
 - Val gets engaged to Barbara Keeley. Her father is a super-conservative politician.
 - Val comes home to ask dad, Armand, to pretend he's not so flamboyant for the first meeting with Barbara's parents. This requires a change in clothes, furnishings, etc.

DECISION IS MADE: Armand turns Val down. (p. 35)

*TENSION RISES: (p. 35-38)
- Meanwhile, tabloid reporters surround the Keeley house
- Keeleys escape the media circus.

: (p. 38-39)
- Armand moody at work.
- Val sits in his room, hopeless.

- Val hears Armand in the next room: "Agador....We're redoing the apartment for tomorrow night. Goddamn it!"
- "Val sits up, slowly, his eyes brightening." [I like that we SEE (not told of) his dad's love.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be afraid to hold off on releasing the tension.

The Birdcage (1996)(shooting script)
by Elaine May

Monday, March 30, 2015

TODAY'S NUGGET: Time Bandits (1981) - How Gilliam Turned Script into Storyboard Sketches

[Quick Summary: A young boy travels time with six thieving time bandits.]

I confess this is all I knew about Terry Gilliam:

- He was part of Monty Python.
- He has been working on a Don Quixote film since 1998.
- I heard that he could really draw.

I finally saw those drawing skills when I read this script in book form.*

Gilliam's sketches pepper the script. 

They're worth studying to see how to translate words into pictures.

ex. In one scene, Napoleon is the only audience member at a Punch and Judy show.

Backstage, the puppeteer is wounded, but carries on.

These are the 3 sketches that follow:

First, the nervous manager and the puppeteer:
 Move in closer on the dying puppeteer:
 Punch and Judy from Napoleon's POV:

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The script was focused, clear (distillation #1).

This allowed Gilliam to reduce whole scenes into sketches (distillation #2).

Time Bandits (1981)
by Terry Gilliam & Michael Palin of Monty Python

* It is now out-of-print, but used copies are available.

Monday, March 23, 2015

2015 OSCARS: Whiplash (2014) - The First Ten (um, First THREE) Pages

[Quick Summary: A college jazz drummer's best & worst enemy is his teacher Fletcher.]


I guzzled this script like ice water in the desert.



It's my favorite Oscar nominated script this year.

I recommend reading the first ten pages...actually, the first THREE.

The first three pages told me everything:
- I knew exactly what this story is about (student vs. teacher).
- I got a sense these characters are carrying baggage.
- I felt the inner and outer conflict.
- I saw where Andrew's journey was going.
- Most importantly, the tempo starts at a simmer, so I knew it would start boiling fairly soon.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This story relies on rhythm and tempo to convey feelings.

The writer was so smart to establish it early and keep focused on it.

Whiplash (2014)
by Damien Chazelle

Monday, March 16, 2015

2015 OSCARS: The Theory of Everything (2014) - I Fell For Romance & Subtlety

[Quick Summary: The unconventional love story of Stephen and Jane Hawking.]

This is one of the most romantic scripts I've read in ages.

I think the key is subtlety, which "is an old-fashioned concept," said writer Anthony McCarten.

It was used so well here.

It makes small moments so much sweeter than any grand gesture.

ex. "The BARMAN takes STEPHEN's POUND and glances at the NAPKIN.

BARMAN: I'd commit that number to memory if I were you.

STEPHEN smiles - then glances at the mirror-backed bar. Reflected - a WOMAN who looks like JANE. Is he imagining this?

TIGHT ON: STEPHEN's face: we see JANE's reflection appear and disappear in the glass of his glasses as she crosses the room.

The BARMAN's voice is distant...

BARMAN: Here you go...

STEPHEN snaps out of it - stares at the BARMAN holding out CHANGE - a smile DAWNING.

BARMAN: Sir? Are you okay?

STEPHEN: Uh, my napkin just walked in."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Romance is seen best in those small, subtle connections.

The Theory of Everything (2014)
by Anthony McCarten
Based on the book, "Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen", by Jane Hawking

Monday, March 9, 2015

2015 OSCARS: Inherent Vice (2014) - In Order to Have A "Stoned and Surreal" Tone...

[Quick Summary: A 1970s p.i. investigates the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend's married lover.]


1) The best piece of advice for reading this script:
The less you try to figure out Anderson's rambling, mesmerising mystery, the better.
I found this helpful, as I agree that:
Pynchon works to the principle that the less a reader is able to grasp, the better.
2) BEST THING ABOUT THIS SCRIPT: Its "stoned and surreal" tone.

The story sometimes did and did not make sense, all at once.

ex.  "DOC: You're emotionally involved? With a boat?

SAUNCHO: Not just a boat, Doc. Something much more...."

WORST THING ABOUT THIS SCRIPT: Its "stoned and surreal" tone."

It was often hard to follow, i.e., tangents, multiple characters, plots, etc.
3)  This tone walks such a fine line between ludicrous and operatic.

Why does it work? 

I think it's because the anchor story is grounded and simple.

Every scene goes back to GUY LOOKS FOR GIRL.

ex. Even when the situations are outlandish, far fetched, or psychedelic:
- When Doc is disguised as a reporter...
- When he takes the odd dentist back to his Bel Air mansion...
- When he enters a hippie enclave...
- When he confronts squirrely FBI agents...

Doc is always trying to track down Shasta, the ex-girlfriend he loves.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You can go as far or high or broad as you want, as long as there's a solid anchor for the story.

Inherent Vice (2014)
by Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon

Monday, March 2, 2015

2015 OSCARS: The Imitation Game (2014) - A Revealing Abruptness

[Quick Summary: Alan Turing during WWII.]

Abruptness* for no reason is a useless gimmick.

The reader will feel manipulated (and, in my case, angry at the page).

However, if the trait reveals subtext, it is pure gold.

Here, notice how it shows Turing's inability to read others:


A few minutes later, Alan sits alone in a cluttered office. He stares ahead blankly at the empty chair behind the desk. Waits.

COMMANDER DENNISTON (O.S.): -What are you doing here?

Alan turns with a start.

ALAN TURING: The girl told me to wait -

COMMANDER DENNISTON: In my office? She tell you to help yourself to a cup of tea while you were here?

ALAN TURING: No. She didn't.

COMMANDER DENNISTON: She didn't tell you what a joke is then either, I gather.

ALAN TURING: Was she supposed to?

COMMANDER DENNISTON: For Christ's sake - who are you?

ALAN TURING: Alan Turing....

COMMANDER DENNISTON: ...King's College, Cambridge. Says here you were a bit of a prodigy in the maths department.

ALAN TURING: I'm not sure I can evaluate that, Mr...?

COMMANDER DENNISTON: How old are you, Mr. Turing?


COMMANDER DENNISTON: How old were you when you became a fellow at Cambridge?


COMMANDER DENNISTON: And how old were you when you published this paper here, that has a title I can barely understand, which apparently got you this fellowship?


COMMANDER DENNISTON: And you don't think that qualifies you as a certified prodigy?

ANA TURING: Rather depends on how old my peers were when they did comparable work, doesn't it?

COMMANDER DENNISTON: And how old were they?

ALAN TURING: Newton discovered the binomial theorem at 22. Einstein published four papers that changed the world at 26. As far as I can tell I've barely made par.

COMMANDER DENNISTON: You're serious, aren't you?

ALAN TURING: Would you prefer I make a joke?

COMMANDER DENNISTON: Not sure you know what those are."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Use socially unacceptable traits to show subtext.

(Don't just use it to manufacture a surface conflict.) 

The Imitation Game (2014)
by Graham Moore
Based on "Alan Turing: The Enigma", by Andrew Hodges

* Or any character trait, for that matter.

Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 OSCARS: American Sniper (2014) - Clarity is So Important

[Quick Summary: The journey of US sniper Chris Kyle to Iraq and back home.]

I...I..I have no words for this script.

It's not your typical war story.  (I was surprised. It's a character study).

It is emotionally costly. (I was unprepared).

It takes you to the front lines of responsibility. (I was floored).

I was interested to hear that both Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood worked on this project.

They gave the writer one overarching note: Clarity.*

I saw it everywhere, even in the small scene below.

Notice the clear intent to convey what the brotherhood feels like:


Chris looks to Marc Lee, eyes closed in prayer. When he opens them he sees Chris looking. The rig sways.

MARC LEE: I went to seminary school before I joined the Navy. Came close to being a preacher.

CHRIS: Why didn't you?

MARC LEE: I love to gamble, man. Love those dice.

Their laughter is liberating. It bonds them.

CHRIS: My kind of preacher.


MARC LEE: It's like that now, huh?

CHRIS: You haven't heard? I'm The Legend. (laughs at self; into phone) Hey babe --

TAYA (O.S.) You were right, doctor says it's a boy.

CHRIS: It's a boy!

MARC LEE: Hell yeah. Congratu--

WHAAP! Windshield spiders."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even with complicated shooting scenes, I could always follow what was at stake.

That's good clear writing.

American Sniper (2014)
by Jason Hall
Based on the book by Christ Kyle with Scott McEwen & Jim DeFelice

*The writer further explains:"[C]larity of purpose, clarity of intention, clarity of emotion. What are they saying? What's the feeling? What are you trying to get out? What are you trying to say?"
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