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.

ex. "INT. BERAGON BEACH HOUSE - LIVING ROOM

...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 loaf...in 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.

CLOSE ON MILDRED

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

TIGHT TWO SHOT

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.

FULL SHOT MONTE AND MILDRED (OUTLINED AGAINST THE FIRE)

MONTE (softly): When I'm clse to you like this...there's a sound in the air...like 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).

ex. "BATHROOM

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.

Beat.

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