Monday, November 28, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Candidate (1972) - Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts

[Quick Summary: A CA legal aid attorney attempts a senatorial campaign to talk about issues, knowing very well that he'll probably lose against the incumbent.]

Before tv was commonly used to shape public opinion in campaigns...

Before there was campaign finance (1972) and this film...

A journalist named Jeremy Larner was the speechwriter for McCarthy (1968).  He wrote a book,* and this prescient script.

In this film, Robert Redford plays an attorney who wants to talk about issues...except no one else does. His campaign staff wants photo ops (that tell half the story).  The media want sound bites (that sound better than his real responses).

He is worn down little by little, like a death by a thousand paper cuts.

I loved how we do not notice the candidate's gradual slide at first.

The writer creates situations where small compromises are required...and another...and another. Soon, the candidate is in a pit and doesn't know how.**

Here is one such innocent "paper cut":


McKay comes in the front door and stops short. Photographer's lights are set up on a stand. Two men stand there.

McKAY: What you doing in my house?
WRITER: I'm having an affair with your wife.
McKAY: Huh?
WRITER: She said if you came in I should say I was a writer from Parade, but you don't believe that.

Nancy emerges from bedroom in riding pants, with crop and felt riding helmet.

NANCY: Oh Bill, this is Mr. Shearer, Bill, and this is Mr. Scott.
McKAY: (shaking hands) From Parade.
WRITER: I trust this is the beginning of a life-long affinity.
McKAY: It's the beginning of something, anyhow. Can you excuse us a minute, gentlemen?
WRITER: Certainly, certainly.

McKay and Nancy step to the side.

McKAY: What's going on?
NANCY: They want to photograph me riding.
McKAY: You haven't worn that stuff in years.
NANCY: You haven't worn that dark suit in years.

McKay starts to walk away, turns back to her.

McKAY: Just not in the house, Nancy. Get those guys out of the house.
NANCY: I was doing it for you.

Nancy starts to cry, turns away, walks back into the kitchen....

McKay follows her into the kitchen - takes her loosely in his arms, comforts her awkwardly. We can see by the way he touches her he is irritated and put off."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: These small compromises really do add up.

The beauty is that they seem so inconsequential at the time...until we pull back to see the big picture 

The Candidate (1972)
by Jeremy Larner

*Nobody Knows: Reflections on the McCarthy Campaign of 1968 (1970)

** It's like a frog in a pot.  It doesn't notice the water is getting warmer, nor when it boils to death.

Monday, November 21, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Arthur (1981) - Zingers Can Clue Into Something Deeper

[Quick Summary: A young drunkard must marry his "family approved" fiancee in order to keep his fortune, but then he falls in love with a poor actress.]

Awhile ago, my interest was piqued after reading this:
...whenever I begin writing a screenplay I always reread one of his. It’s called ARTHUR.
I went looking for any script by Steve Gordon, and/or an Arthur final script.

I found the former,* but couldn't find the latter...until now.

Arthur is the funniest, sharpest, cleverest comedy script that I've read in forever.

What sets it apart? The funniest lines aren't just jokes for a sound bite.  The zingers point to character stuff - pain, loss, humor, loneliness - i.e., clues to something deeper.

Below is our first introduction to Arthur.  Note the funny reactions of the minor characters (Bitterman and Girl) clue us in that something deeper stirs.

ex. "One of the girls approaches the car. In the front seat, the driver in full chauffeur's dress stares straight ahead.  This is BITTERMAN, a black man in his forties. The back seat of the limo has a bar, TV set, a refrigerator and almost every device known for mixing a drink. The girl is GLORIA.

GLORIA: What did you have in mind?

ARTHUR: VD! I'm really into penicillin! (he laughs) Now...that's funny!

Gloria stares at him.

ARTHUR:  I know this is last minute. (he laughs) Ahh ...I finally heard someone laughing. was me. What I have in spending the evening with a stranger who loves me.

GLORIA: It's going to cost you a hundred dollars.

ARTHUR: Oh yeah ...what time do you get off work? (he laughs) I'm kidding. If you laugh a little I throw in nylons and Hershey bars. Let's make it two hundred. But I will ask you to Simonize my car.

Gloria stares at him.

ARTHUR: (looking at her staring) Tell me ...has there been a death in your family? This is funny stuff here.

GLORIA: Who are you?

ARTHUR: I'm rich. That's who I am. Get in the car.

[Gloria gets in.] Arthur pushes a button to talk to the driver.

ARTHUR: (to Bitterman) Bitterman, give her friend a hundred dollars. She came in second.

Bitterman gets out of the car. He approaches the other hooker and gives her a hundred dollars.

GIRL: (to Bitterman) Who is that guy?

BITTERMAN: I'd rather not say.

GIRL: I think I know. I've seen his picture in the paper. That's Arthur Bach...isn't it?

BITTERMAN: Uh...what if it is?

GIRL: Is there something wrong with him?


WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I read somewhere that Gordon packed "more jokes per page than anyone else."  Now I realize they're not just jokes, but clues pointing us to deeper character stuff.

Arthur (1981)
Written and directed by Steve Gordon

*I was lucky enough to see the special collection mentioned in that blog post.  It is phenomenal, and includes an early draft of Arthur, as well as scripts from The Practice (1976-77) with Danny Thomas.

Monday, November 14, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: On Golden Pond (1981) - Not Over Explaining a Mean Character

[Quick Summary: A crotchety old dad and sweet mom arrive at their summer home, and become hosts to the teen age son of their daughter's boyfriend.]

I am not interested in mean characters who are only mean in order to get their way.

I am not interested in those types of "one note" characters.

They are predictable, boring, and worst of all, unrealistic.

However, I am interested in characters who are acting mean (either consciously or unconsciously) for complicated reasons:

In this script, Norman (Henry Fonda) is a sour and indignant grouch. He's got a critical tongue, borne with humor by his very nice wife (Katherine Hepburn).
Norman is mad that he might be losing his senility. He also doesn't express his feelings well, which has estranged him from his daughter (Jane Fonda).

I loved that the writer did not try to over explain Norman's motives to the readers.* 

Why does he flare out at his wife? Why is he mean, then nice to young Billy?

I am not 100% sure.  He is a messy, and very realistic, person.

In the scene below, note how fast happy turns sour (quick emotional turns):

ex. "He tries on more hats, one of which he'll wear for the rest of the scene.

ETHEL: My father got him for me on my fourth birthday. I wanted a red scooter, but my father said red scooters were excessive and contrary to the ways of the Lord. He told me I'd understand when I got older. Well, I'm a lot older now and I'm afraid I still don't understand. But he gave me Elmer [a doll]. And Elmer and I, the times we've had. He was my first true love, you know.

NORMAN: I've known all along I wasn't the first in line.

ETHEL: No, you were a rather cheap substitute for my darling Elmer. And now he's had a fall, poor dear.

NORMAN: Maybe he was trying to kill himself. Maybe he wants to be cremated. Probably got cancer or termites or something.

ETHEL: Are you hungry, darling?

NORMAN: No. It wouldn't be a bad way to go, huh? A quick front flip off the mantel, a bit of a kick at the last minute, and end up right in the fire. Nothing to it.

ETHEL: Shut up, Norman!

NORMAN: When my number's up, do that for me, would you? Prop me up on the mantel adn point out which way is down. I may even try for a full gainer with a half twist.

ETHEL: Norman Thayer, will you shut up? Your fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor.

NORMAN: It's not a fascination. It just crosses my mind now and then.

ETHEL: Every five minutes. Don't you have anything else to think about?

NORMAN: Nothing quite as interesting.

ETHEL: Well, what's stopping you? Why don't you take your dive and get it over with? See what it's like?

NORMAN: And leave you alone with Elmer? You must be mad.

ETHEL: Oh, for pity's sake. Come along with me and let's get the canoe off the porch."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Lay out the truth, but don't over explain the character.

On Golden Pond (1981)
by Ernest Thompson (based on his play)

*In today's scripts, I do not like the trend of over justifying or over explaining what a character does or does not do.

[Similarly:  There can't be loose ends.  Everything must have a concrete answer.] 

This isn't realistic! Life is messy, and you don't always get answers.

Monday, November 7, 2016

TODAY'S NUGGET: Sounder (1972) - Showing Emotional Growth

[Quick Summary: In the 1930s, a young Louisiana black boy grows up with a desire to learn, despite set-backs, on his family's share-cropping farm.]

I've read a lot of scripts in my day.  Good ones. Great ones. Bad ones.

This makes me suspicious of any hard sell,* so I won't try any on you.

However, I will say that there's a lost art in these "Best American" scripts, of which Sounder is one.

Ebert says it best:
The story is so simple because it involves, not so much what people do, but how they change and grow. Not a lot happens on the action level, but there's tremendous psychological movement in "Sounder," and hardly ever do movies create characters who are so full and real, and relationships that are so loving. [my emphasis]
Today's scripts seem to rely on empty action gimmicks: "More set pieces! More explosions! Flashy!"  Too often, I remember the gimmicks and none of the story.

The art of Sounder is that it does have action, but it serves (and not overshadows) the emotional growth.

In the scene below, note:

- There's not much action-y stuff, but it's an important emotional turning point.

- The writer chose images that best conveys how we feel in this heavy moment (sheriff avoids eye contact, kids crying, husband and wife eye-to-eye, saying a silent good-bye, etc.):

ex.  "The sound of the truck is heard moving up close to the house and stopping. Rebecca moves away from Josie Mae and Earl, and stops directly in the face of Sheriff Young.

REBECCA: You been knowin' Nathan for a long time, Sheriff Young, and you now what kind of man he is, and you know the trouble we face in these off-seasons.

The sheriff cannot look her in the face - he walks away from her and everyone, and just looks out over the fields - then finally he motions with his hand to the two deputies, standing at Nathan's side to put him into the truck. They lift him up into the truck as Josie Mae, standing up on the porch with Earl, starts to cry softly as Rebecca moves to the edge of the vehicle, real close to Nathan's face. She kisses him lightly on the mouth, and then they just look on each other for awhile, in a way they knew and loved each other so well. Then in a physical, tough manner, Rebecca turns away and walks up on the porch with Josie Mae and Earl.... [Note her emotional maturity here.]

The truck starts to pull away - David lets go of his grip on Sounder, and makes a dash out into the road.  [Contrasted to David's immaturity here.]

DAVID LEE: Don't take my Daddy! Please don't take my Daddy!

REBECCA: David, come back here!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One way to show emotional growth:

- First, writing an emotionally laden scene with a fork in the road (as above).
- Then in the NEXT scene, it will be natural for David Lee to build upon it (maturing), or refuse to do so (tragedy).

Sounder (1972)
by Lonne Elder III
Based on the Newbery medal winning novel by William H. Armstrong

* For more explanation, read this screenwriter's tiprant on a newbie who was "very, very, very enthusiastic" about his script and selling hard.

Also, it reminds us that relationships are everything, and explains why bragging too hard about your script might damage them: "This might be a great script but the prospect of dealing with you is nauseating."
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