Monday, April 25, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Daniel (1983) - Tricky Adaption Problem; Theme That You Intend

[Quick Summary: A young man relives the heavy cost of the accusations, incarcerations and trials of his Jewish parents during the 1940s.]

You're a hungry screenwriter. (Producer or director is ok too.)

You're reading script after script, and you've gotten comfortable...and bored.
 
What do you do?

Answer: To up your game, you read and study scripts of advanced difficulty.

(In sports terms, it's called boxing/wrestling above your weight class.)

This is an advanced script.*

Ok, ok, it has a slow start.  Yes, the scattered timeline is distracting.

No, it did not do well at the box office, and reviews were mixed.

Even the director said the final film "succeeded in some cases, did not succeed in others." (p. 121)

However, I still believe it's worth reading because:

1) Sidney Lumet directed it.

Lumet never failed to choose emotionally challenging material that had something important to say (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico).

2) It shows you how to tackle a tricky adaption problem.
Daniel, for a director, presented nightmarish problems because, first of all, you must find out how to make that internal life clear, and find the visual equivalent of Edgar's [E.L. Doctorow's] poetry, of Edgar's nonreality.  How do you make a picture seem real? But you can't use reality because it's not a realistic novel. The time fracturing that Edgar did was the only way to tell the story... (Interview with Lumet, p. 121)
3) It shows you that the theme you intend may not be what comes across.

I read the script but was still unsure of its theme. Film reviewers were too. 

Then I read this quote from Lumet:
I was at that point in my life, again without knowing it, very ready for anything to do with family. My children were growing up and, like all people who have been, well, obsessive about work, I started wondering what damage I had caused. Who was paying for my obsessiveness? Had my kids paid for my obsessiveness? And from a thematic point of view that to me is the largest single element in Daniel.  To me, it is a book about who pays for your passion. Because passion is such a part of one's life. (p. 119-120)
A-ha! The theme is how parents' decisions affect their children. Not an easy theme.

I saw how the writer here did it, and wondered, "Could I make it clearer?"

I am not sure I could (but perhaps someone smarter than me could.) 

You've got to admit, though, that this writer had guts to try for it.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Read hard scripts to broaden your horizons of what works or does not work. Don't be afraid to aim high, even if it doesn't quite make it.

Daniel (1983) 
by E.L. Doctorow, based on his novel, The Book of Daniel 

*It is also the rare case where I think it was best that the novelist adapted his own work.  But also note this novelist/book editor/professor/playwright/screenwriter has been winning awards since 1975.

Monday, April 18, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Prince of the City (1981) - Showing the Grey of Corruption

[Quick Summary:  Corrupt narcotics cop agrees to inform on his fellow cops for the Chase Commission, but isn't prepared for the heavy toll it takes.]

Could you write a script showing how corruption is a fast and easy crime?

The correct answer is NO, and this script shows why:

1) Corruption is a repeated behavior over time, i.e., a pattern.

INTERPRETATION: Your script will probably be long. Here, it's 183 pgs.

2) Corruption trips up people in the details.

INTERPRETATION: Your script, like this one, will likely be very dense, with multiple characters, locations, and/or situations.

3) The effects of corruption on the participants and families are heavy.

INTERPRETATION: This script is an ambitious, troubling, realistic portrayal of what cops have to do when waging a war against drugs, and it isn't nice and neat.

This script really shines in showing egos, doubts, and dilemmas. 

Danny Ciello is a good man, loyal friend. and an effective NYPD narcotics cop who does many questionable things in the line of duty.

He protects his squad, but he also passes drugs to informants. 

He won't squeal on his friends, but when Brooks Paige (U.S. Attorney's Office) comes asking for help, Danny is flattered and wants to play in the big leagues.

In the scene below, Ciello is talking to his wife Carla:

ex. "CIELLO: But Carla... I've found a very important friend.

CARLA: More important than your old friends?

CIELLO: It's different. This guy Paige... it's crazy but I want to run up the wall for him. Remember that old science fiction movie When the Earth Stood Still? And this tall, good-looking guy from another planet came and fixed everything -- Michael Rennie? You just looked at him and knew he could handle it...

CARLA: What is it you think this Paige's going to handle so great?

CIELLO: (a beat) Well, Loughlin, for one.

CARLA: Loughlin shouldn't have been in in the first place.

CIELLO: (suddenly miserable) I know that. I know..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even though there was no easy answers and it was all greys, I felt the ending was well-earned, which was no easy feat.

Prince of the City (1981)
by Jay Presson Allen and Sidney Lumet
Based on the book by Robert Daley

Monday, April 11, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Serpico (1973) - The Uncomfortable Character

[Quick Summary: When officer Frank Serpico refuses bribes, his fellow officers are out for his blood.]
 
The real Frank Serpico said: 
“They took the job I loved most,” he said. “I just wanted to be a cop, and they took it away from me.”
Did he say that in 1967 when he testified against fellow cops?

No, he said that in 2010, FORTY THREE years later.

What does this tell you about him? That he holds grudges? That he's soured?

To me, it says this man believed deeply in the principles that his badge represented.

It was a belief so deep that he was willing to suffer great personal discomfort and pay the price, even if it meant losing his badge (and he did). 

Why is this character so interesting? This article about the film put it well:
[Serpico is] ‘a driven character of Dostoyevskian proportions, an anti-cop cop.’ And the positioning of Serpico as a man with this dual nature, one foot in each world but never wholly accepted into either, heightened his isolation and discomfort in almost every aspect of his life, making for a compelling human drama. 
ex. "Serpico and Peluce are sitting at a table, food and soft drinks on trays in front of them. Serpico takes a bite of the sandwich, makes a face, opens the sandwich and looks at the meat.

SERPICO: This is 85% fat!

He starts to get up.

SERPICO: Hell, I saw some real lean beef over there.

Peluce grabs him by the arm.

PELUCE: Take it easy. Don't be so fussy. it's free. Listen, Charlie's an okay guy. We give him a break on double-parking on deliveries.

Serpico is disconcerted. He senses there's a kind of protocol here that he should not defy -- and he doesn't want to offend Peluce. He sits down.

SERPICO (diffidently): Couldn't I pay for it...and get what I want?

PELUCE: You pay for yours...I'd look pretty dumb. (pause) Frank, generally...you just sort of take what Charlie gives you.

He looks somewhat sheepish. On Serpico's face there is surprise and then a look of disgust."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I feel the trendy thing is to create morally ambiguous characters and duck the uncomfortable questions for another day (that never comes).

This character was refreshing because he couldn't be bought and actually had to make many uncomfortable decisions that had tough consequences.

Serpico (1973)
by Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler
Based on the book, "Serpico," by Peter Maas

Monday, April 4, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Suspicion (1941) - Great Villain + Wrong Casting + Studio Interference = Wrong Ending

[Quick Summary: A young woman is entranced, wooed, and married to a wastrel , and soon finds that her new husband may be trying to kill her.]

*WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*

Johnnie Aysgarth is an excellent villain in this story.

I believe he's shady, devious, underhanded, and unreliable.

I believe he's also in love with his new wife, Lina McLaidlaw. 

I believe he would indeed lie, mislead, and cheat for the funds to keep her.

However, I do not believe the ending in the script, i.e., that he is redeemed.  It is not consistent with Johnnie's character or his choices.

I think Hitchcock thought the same because he wanted a darker ending.

Unfortunately, he had wrongly cast Cary Grant as Johnnie.  The studio didn't think audiences would buy him as a killer, and thus insisted on the current, happier ending.

I would've believed Hitchcock's darker version over the present one.

I think it's because Johnnie has the charisma to sell it:

ex. "ALICE: And Johnnie insisted on meeting you.

LINA (looking at Johnnie): Why?

The girls giggle but before they have time to reply Johnnie says very simply:

JOHNNIE: Well, I understand from these charming ladies that a really bang-up, eligible young man is an unusual sight in this part of the country. My heard was touched.

SEMI-CLOSEUP - Lina and Johnnie. Johnnie remains calm and smiling and Lina is flushed and embarrassed. Behind this we hear others chattering simultaneously."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm comforted that even Hitchcock had to compromise, and sometimes it wasn't always for the best.

Suspicion (1941)
by Samson Raphaelson, Alma Reville, and Joan Harrison
Based on the novel,, "Before the Fact," by Francis Iles (pseudonym for A. B. Cox)