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. Sinatra.do 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.

CLOSE UP - WHITE SHOES

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?

NURSE: Huh?

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).