Wednesday, July 27, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Garbo Talks (1984) - Using Non Sequiturs in Comedy

[Quick Summary: A dedicated son seeks high and low to fulfill his dying mother's wish to meet Greta Garbo.]

This is a comedy.

...which ISN'T an exciting fact, except this IS a Sidney Lumet directed comedy.

...which IS exciting because Lumet did not direct many comedies at all. (In fact, he's states that he's not very good at comedy.*)   

OK, so the execution of the script may not have hit it out of the park.

But is the script good??!  Why did it attract Lumet, Anne Bancroft, and Ron Silver?

The script is a tremendous work of comedy. 

I wonder how many hours it took to hone, and hone, and hone so the comedy became this sharp.

I particularly liked how the script portrays the mother Estelle through non sequiturs.

Estelle is eccentric and maddening, but sane. 

I liked that she would choose a non sequitur and run it all the way to its furthest conclusion.

These "logical" non sequiturs fit this character well. They are broad, but not wacky. They rail against injustice, and champion the underdog.


comes over.


ESTELLE: I'll have the chicken salad plate.

The waitress writes it down.

GILBERT: Just coffee.

ESTELLE (to waitress): You don't reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. That's very nice.


She hasn't the slightest idea what Estelle is talking about. Estelle sees her consternation and explains, pointing to the bottom of the menu.

ESTELLE: In the south, restaurants used to print, 'We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone' on the bottom of  menus ---


Convulsing in his chair with embarrassment:

GILBERT: Mother, for Godssake!


She ignores him.

ESTELLE: They did this to keep black customers out. They would lie and say it was to keep out drunks, but everyone knew differently. You still see it on menus today. It's nice to see it's not on yours.

WAITRESS (after speechless beat): Anything else?"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  When Estelle goes off on a rant/non sequitur, it seems random but it is not.
She has a purpose in mind.

From a writing standpoint, it's a great way to sneak in the character's point of view on topics, while still delivering laughs.

Garbo Talks (1984)(undated)
by Larry Grusin

*I have not seen the film, but this fact could very well be true, if Roger Ebert's one star review is to be believed.

Monday, July 18, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Greystoke (1984) - When You're Ahead of Your Time

[Quick Summary: A human baby is adopted and raised by African apes.]

I do not normally read early rough drafts.

However, this one stirred my curiosity.

First, this draft is solely written by Towne.

Second, he must not have liked the rewritten version, as he used a pseudonym in the credits.

After reading Towne's undiluted vision, I can see why he and the producers probably didn't see eye to eye.  It is an inventive script, but years ahead of its time:

- This is a story about Tarzan mastering the raw, primal jungle elements, which I liked.  (More commercial fare would probably focus on Tarzan and Jane, or how Tarzan adjusted to society.)

- It's nearly a silent film, i.e., apes don't talk. (I liked this, but others might prefer more dialogue.)

- Energetic action chases in the trees, killing a bushpig, etc. well suited for using CGI...except this script was written in 1977 when CGI wasn't possible.


who has grown more frenzied, charges from behind  her and actually grabs at her baby, tearing it out of her arms, shaking the screeching little ape at the stormy sky as he plunges toward the trees.


is horrified. She lets out a frenzied scream herself and chases after Silver Beard.


she catches up to him, bites him on the neck and nimbly plucks her baby out of Silver Beard's grasp.


is astonished at being challenged. His shock turns to rage. With a roaring scream, he takes off after Kala.


clinging onto her back leaps into the trees in an effort to elude Silver Beard."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Let your imagination really soar, even if the current technology isn't ready yet.

This script could easily be bought today, though it is 39 yrs. old. Its emotions are still THAT engaging.

Greystoke (1984)(draft dated 8/4/77)
by Robert Towne
Based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Monday, July 11, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Yakuza (1974) - How to Tell a Story: Drama, Transitions

[Quick Summary: An American goes to Japan to rescue a friend's daughter who has been kidnapped by the criminal yakuza.]

Would I have green lit The Yakuza in 1974 (Sydney Pollack, Robert Mitchum)? YES.

Would I green light The Yakuza today? YES.

So what sets Robert Towne scripts apart?  Quite simply, he knows how to tell a story.

"Tell a story?!" you scoff, "How hard is that?!"  Beat. "So how does he tell a story?"

The short answer: I don't know.

The long answer: I still don't know, but I see a few helpful clues in his scripts.

First, he understands drama.*

Second, he understands transitions. This is not simply getting in and out of a scene.

It is getting in, getting out, emphasizing important points, moving the story forward, all without shouting, "LOOK AT ME!"

In the scene below, watch how the writer:
- moves the story from the sedan to the gravesite
- shows that this is an honorable woman
- emphasizes that this is an important woman, without saying, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT, HONORABLE WOMAN, AND SHE IS IMPORTANT TO KILMER
- moves us from the gravesite to Kilmer's office


driven by a chauffeur. Tono sits stiffly in back. CAMERA FOLLOWS as it drives past an old cemetery. HOLD on the cemetery and PUSH IN to the figure of a lone woman dressed in kimono standing front of a grave.


MOVING PAST ancient shinto grave stones. Lantern shaped and rust colored in the grey light. MOVE INTO TIGHT SHOT of the woman who kneels in front of the grave. The CAMERA STUDIES her beautiful face MOVING IN EVEN TIGHTER until her eyes, nose and mouth FILL THE FRAME, and the IMAGE BECOMES:


of the woman (twenty years younger). It sits on a cluttered desk. There is the SOUND of a ticker tape over, and then a voice on an intercom:

VOICE (OVER): It's twelve thirty, Mr. Kilmer."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Know your job: Study drama MORE. Study transitions MORE.

The Yakuza (1974)(dated 12/18/73)
Draft by Robert Towne
Story by Leonard Schrader

* Frankly, there's no shortcut except to read the classics, read everything, read, read, read (see John Logan's advice to read classics for language in his BAFTA lecture here).

Monday, July 4, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Two Jakes (1990) - Two Drafts; Opening Sequence

[Quick Summary: Older and wiser, Jake Gittes is embroiled in a confusing case of cuckolded husband, cheating wife, and the dead man's widow.]

Scripts change from concept to production. A LOT.

This is why I generally avoid previous drafts...

...except this week, I read two drafts of Robert Towne's The Two Jakes.

I WANTED to see how Towne made changes to his scripts.
Yes, yes, yes, Towne's scripts are not always pretty on the page.

They tend to be long (140-180 pgs.), convoluted, and full of paragraphs everywhere.

But in an era of copycats, his scripts stand out: an original voice, a grasp on what's missing in today's films, i.e., drama (see essay), and something interesting to say.
GOOD NEWS: These two drafts (1984, 1985) did not disappoint: a good script, with good bones, complicated characters, everyone is guilty.

BAD NEWS: I was disappointed by how little changed (or needed to be changed) from the 1984 draft to 1985 draft.  Towne seems to have had a solid base from the start. (Sigh.)

I do not know how close these are to the final version, but I leave you to ponder the wonder of the opening shot.


The glove leather of the shoes contain feet crossed at the ankles, cocked on the heels and nestled up against one another like a pair of love birds.  From time to time the shoes separate an inch or so, then give one another a playful tap - the wire on the recorder moves continuously however, winding tautly around itself. The red light on the machine intermittently flashes to indicate sound levels.

BERMAN'S VOICE (rehearsing, but shaky and nervous): '- oh no, oh no, oh no Kitty, you told me you were going to Murietta Hot Springs and now I find you here at -'

The shaky recitatif breaks off. The shoes have separated, poised in anticipation.

WALSH'S VOICE (a stage whisper): ' - the Bird-of-Paradise Motel -'


an anxious and olive skinned man sitting in front of Gittes' desk and shoes.

BERMAN (going on): ' - the Bird-of-Paradise Motel - in Redondo Beach at two in the afternoon on October 21, 1948 with this man - '

The shoes bump rudely into one another and GITTES sits up into FRAME, visible along with his legs and shoes.

GITTES: Mr. Berman, it's very unnatural for a man to discuss what year it is when he's staring at his wife in bed with another man -

BERMAN: But my lawyer said -

GITTES: - we'll establish the date, let us worry about that. Just -

He gestures gently but firmly in the direction of the recorder."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I picked the wrong two drafts to examine for clues on "how to solve story problems."

I did learn a new word from them, though: "tryptich."

The Two Jakes (1990)(draft dated 10-28-84)
The Two Jakes (1990)(draft dated 2-25-85)
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