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
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