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.

ex. "SCENE 23 FAT MOE'S : LIVING QUARTERS ADJOINING TEE LUNCH ROOM (1968) Interior. Night.

ANTEROOM

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.

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

*TENSION RELEASED: (p. 39)
- 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