Monday, September 26, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) - Foreshadowing With Visual Gags (On the Cheap)

[Quick Summary: Bumbling King Arthur and his knights encounter silly obstacles while looking for the Holy Grail.]

As you may (or may not) know, this film was shot on a shoestring budget.

How do you get plenty of laughs on the cheap? Visual gags!

The Monty Python gang are among the best at devising the cleverest ones.

For example, see how they foreshadow by repeated use of triads:

ex. "They have ridden past the following signs, all in triplicate: --

CAMELOT 43      CERTAIN DEATH 1
CAMELOT 43      CERTAIN DEATH 1
CAMELOT 43      CERTAIN DEATH 1
[The audience wonders, "Why are there three? A mistake?"]

BEWARE    GO BACK    DEAD PEOPLE ONLY
BEWARE    GO BACK    DEAD PEOPLE ONLY
BEWARE    GO BACK    DEAD PEOPLE ONLY
[The audience sees three again.  Ok, not a mistake, but what is going on?]

EXT. GLADE. DAY.

They now pass three KNIGHTS impaled to a tree. With their feet off the ground, with one lance through the lot of them, they are skewered up like a barbecue.
[Is this the punchline?]

Then they pass three KNIGHTS sitting on the ground with one enormous axe through their skulls. They look timorous.
[Is THIS the punchline? No? What's going to happen next?]

SIR ROBIN rides on a little way with the music building up enormous and terrifying tension, until suddenly there standing before him is an enormous THREE-HEADED KNIGHT.

Large terrifying chord.
[We teeter on the tension.]

(Incidentally the three heads come out of one large body, specially built to accommodate three actors, although the KNIGHT has the usual complement of arm and legs. The THREE HEADS of the KNIGHT speak in unison.)"
[Release of tension. All the "threes" make sense and it's a huge laugh!]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The repeated use of a triad of items is funny, and sets up a subliminal expectation of a payoff.

Also, punchlines are often delivered on the third beat.  Here, it's on the fifth beat.  It works here, but might not always.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, & Michael Palin

Monday, September 19, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Night and the City (1992) - Improvisation & Editing in Dialogue

[Quick Summary: A fast talking lawyer wheels and deals his way into his dream job of being a boxing promoter.]

This is the last script* in the three published screenplays of writer Richard Price.

I think Price has a great ear for snappy dialogue. 

I found his explanations very helpful (from the book's introduction):
I love writing about fast-talkers. I like wheeler-dealers. I love the art of the yackety-yak. I love that because what keeps me fresh as a writer is improvisation. I've got to create scenes in which my characters has got to improvise because then I have to improvise for him....
Good dialogue is not somebody's ability to write authentic speech as heard in real life....Good dialogue on the page is the illusion of reality. It's the essentialization of how people talk. You've got to know how to edit what people say without losing any of the spirit.
So the keys are: 1) Characters improvising, and 2) Editing.

Watch how Harry improvises in the moment, and how the words are edited for impact:

ex. The scene below is at an ATM machine. (My thoughts in italics.)

"Abruptly two male voices slide up on either side of Harry - young, menacing.

VOICE #1 (OS): Pull four hundred, bro. That's the daily max, right?
VOICE #2 (OS): Citi lets you pull five.
VOICE #1: Take out five.
[This Q & A is abbreviated, but realistic. Do you know what the limits are? I don't.]

The camera holds on Harry's hands, his card, the screen asking:

"What can I do for you?"
[Time for Harry to improvise.]

HARRY: (fingers paradiddling on the counter) Jesus Christ
(disguted) Here,
(drops the card on the counter) do it yourself, my secret number is 382741. Be my guest.
[Pretty bold move to confuse the robbers.]

VOICE #2 (OS): Just do it.

HARRY: (softly singing) Hey baby, won't cha take a chance...
[Singing is an odd response to such a stressful situation. Good improv.]

Harry pushes "balance information." All three wait, Harry humming.

Screen lights up:

BALANCE: $00.00
YOU OWE CHECKING PLUS $343.37.

HARRY: Know what I mean, chief?
[The visual carries the scene. No need to explain.]

Voices #1 and #2 sigh and hiss...

Harry's hands lay still on the counter as we hear the muggers exit.

Hands lay still for a beat longer. Silence. Then Harry starts humming "Let's Dance" again. He digs into his pockets with one hand and reaches for a deposit envelope with the other.

He stuffs a thousand in hundred dollar bills into the envelope.

We see Harry's face as he turns to the street, sticks out his tongue and licks the envelope shut. It's a gleeful, animated gesture of childish triumph."
[The payoff for the scam is that he wins against the robbers.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When your dialogue drags, make your characters improvise.

Also, dialogue isn't realistic. It needs to be edited for the core of what people mean.

Night and the City (1992)(2nd draft dated 1985, revised w/ comments from Scorsese)
by Richard Price
Adapted from the novel by Gerald Kersh

*It is a 1985 second draft (includes comments from then-attached director Martin Scorsese), not the final 1991 shooting draft (for director Irwin Winkler.) I'm assuming Price liked the 1985 draft best.

Monday, September 12, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Sea of Love (1989) - When Others Want to Change Your Script; Character

[Quick Summary: Intense homicide cop falls for a female suspect who could be a serial killer.]

Novelist/screenwriter Richard Price understands show BUSINESS:
...You can pose and play the artist all you want, but if you're going in there you better have your Screenwriter's hat on, not your New York Novelist's hat. You're getting paid by them. It's their project. They've got to sell it in the morning. Now what I have to do is write stuff that I can live with and they can live with.
He gets the importance of COLLABORATION:
The whole point of this book for me is that as a screenwriter you are constantly surrendering your vision. And what I am saying now is that my vision, my role as an independent artist, ended with these drafts. Which is not to say that a lot of the stuff that was done after these drafts was not good and necessary....One thing to remember is that the only screenplays that don't get fiddled with are the screenplays that don't get made.
So what do you do when your show biz partners want to change your script?

Price faced this with Sea of Love.

His first pass (1987 draft) was deemed "unshootable."  (I liked this draft.)

The final 1988 draft included more for a female star, and a more typical Hollywood structure and ending. (I didn't like this draft since the tone changed.)

I understand why producers wanted changes, but it destroyed what I liked best.*

Yes, the script wanders a little, but Frank takes us on fascinating mini-adventures.

He's so much more than his job, and I wanted to see more of that side of him.
 
ex. "INT. REC ROOM

He opens his locker to hang up his sport jacket. On the inside of the door is a photo of a woman, ringed in red, with a diagonal slash across the face a la Ghostbusters. This is Denice.

Detective Gruber, much bigger than Frank, but soft and sad-looking, comes up to him.

GRUBER: Frank...

FRANK: Yo.

GRUBER: I don't want you calling us three in the morning anymore...You want to talk to Denice, you call her decent hours. (beat) Next time you call like that, it's you and me.

FRANK: (unintimidated) You and me?

GRUBER: Try me (Beat) and I want you to take down that picture of her (pointing to the cross-slashed portrait) I find it offensive.

FRANK: (holding his rage) You find it offensive?

Frank slams his locker and walks away, leaving Gruber standing alone, infuriated."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I have no easy answers, but wish the producers had kept it a character piece rather than insisting on a mystery format.

Sea of Love (1989)(draft from 1987)
by Richard Price

Sea of Love (1989)(final draft from 5/26/88) 

* "Part of my problem as a screenwriter is that I'm much more engaged by the moment, the veracity of any particular moment, than by what happens next. Think of a screenplay as a pyramid; you've got four characters on the bottom, you have two hours, and they all have to converge at the apex of the pyramid. Well, my problem perpetually is that my guys constantly wander and mosey on their way up, because there's something very interesting ten feet from the base, and there's something over here forty feet up from the base, and they might not ever get to the top of the pyramid except that I have to do it. My heart is in the moment." - Richard Price, p. xvi.

Monday, September 5, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Color of Money (1986) - Building a House (Structure) to Show Off the Furniture (Dialogue)

[Quick Summary: Old pool shark decides to mentor a young, unseasoned prodigy.]

I am flattened. Destroyed. Wrecked. Gutted.

Have you ever read something so great that it blew your hair back, and made you reach for the good bourbon, while muttering, "Why do I even try?"

THIS is that script.  [*cough* Oscar nominated script *cough cough*]

Some snot-nosed non-writer might sneer,"This script is mostly dialogue. Is that all writers do? That's easy."

Yes, it is mostly dialogue, and it looks easy.  But do not be deceived.

It is only because the writer* first built a sturdy house (structure) that the furniture (dialogue) could be showcased. 

The Setup: Wily Eddie wants to partner with trusting Vincent, who is unsure.  Eddie gets Carmen, Vincent's girlfriend, involved. Eddie then tells Vincent that Carmen is restless and dissatisfied.

The Payoff:  Note how the seeds of doubt sprout in the scene below.

It is especially clear when Carmen makes fun of Vincent, and he's embarrassed for doubting (see ** below).

ex. "Julian walks over to the bar. Vincent tears open the chips.

VINCENT: You see my girlfriend?
JULIAN: She went out.
VINCENT: Out where?
JULIAN: Hey, she's your girlfriend, man.

Carmen enters the room tapping a fresh pack of cigarettes against the back of her hand.

VINCENT: Everything OK?
CARMEN: (shrugs) Yeah.
VINCENT: Where'd you go?
CARMEN: I went to get cigs.
VINCENT: They see cigarettes here.
CARMEN: So I got 'em across the street, so what.
VINCENT: What, do you mean, you wanted to get some fresh air?
CARMEN: Fresh air? There's ninety thousand cars out there. (beat) What is your problem?
VINCENT: No problem... no problem.
CARMEN: (looking at him screwy) Glad to hear it.
VINCENT: I just didn't know where you went...I was looking for you.**
CARMEN: I'm gonna sit down now, OK?**
VINCENT: Great.
CARMEN: I might go to the bathroom in about ten, twenty minutes.
VINCENT: OK.
CARMEN: I'll come and tell you when, OK?
VINCENT: Hey...I just didn't know where you went... Let's not make a federal production out of it, OK?
CARMEN: OK.
VINCENT: Good.

Vincent returns to the empty table, screw the stick together and powers a monstrous break. He studies the spread. Can't concentrate. Puts down the stick and strides over to Eddie.

VINCENT: Let's do it.

CLOSE-UP - CARMEN

casually looking across the room to Eddie.

Eddie catches her glance, nods, looks away."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The better the writer, the more invisible the structure. Here, it's practically gossamer.

The Color of Money (1986)
by Richard Price
Adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis

* For all you sharp-eyed readers, this is the same Richard Price who co-created and co-wrote the recently acclaimed tv mini-series, "The Night Of" (2016), with Steven Zaillian.