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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