Monday, May 22, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Seven Samurai (1954) - Giving Weight & Meaning to Action/Violent Scenes

[Quick Summary: Under the threat of bandits, a village hires a band of seven samurai for protection.]

Three Things Worth Noticing:

1) I've seen this film and it's everything everyone says that it is, including:

- One of the first modern action films
- One of the first films to show the unglamorized consequences of violence
- Excellence in editing

2) For me, the genius of Seven Samurai is in the editing and shots.

I would've bought it based on a short film or discussion with the director.

I probably would not have bought it based on the script because I just couldn't see the whole film visually.

3) So should you still read the script? (Yes, it's a long one.)

Yes, if only to learn how to give your action/violent scenes weight and meaning.

One key is to include a visual of what results from of the fighting and/or violence, i.e., people DIE. People get HURT. There are CONSEQUENCES.  If this is absent, the action is forgettable.

ex. "Low-angle medium shot of the WOMAN holding the baby with KIKUCHIYO in three-quarter back view in the foreground. The mill wheel still turns in the background, now almost enveloped in flames. Without saying a word, the WOMAN hands the baby to him; then, thowing back her head, she staggers forward. KAMBEI rushes up to catch her. As she falls into his arms he feels blood on his hand and looks at it. KIKUCHIYO, holding the child, looks at the WOMAN's back.

KAMBEI: She was speared. RIght in the back. Yet she got as far as here. What will-power!

KAMBEI hoists the WOMAN's dead body onto his shoulder and KIKUCHIYO puts out a hand to stead him, still holding the baby in his other arm.

KAMBEI: Kikuchiyo, let's go back.

He starts to wade back down the stream towards camera.

Medium shot of KAMBEI coming towards camera carrying the WOMAN over his shoulder. Behind him, KIKUCHIYO is staring at the child in his arms, the mill blazing in the background. KAMBEI notices that KIKUCHIYO is not following him and turns back, uring him on.

KAMBEI: Come on, what's the matter?

Medium close-up o KIKUCHIYO holding the child, silhouetted against the flames. Tilt down with him as he sinks down onto his knees, waist-deep in the stream.

KIKUCHIYO: This baby. It's me! The same thing happened to me!

He sobs, hugging the child tightly."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Remember to include the consequences of action/violence through reaction shots, etc.

Otherwise, the audience is less inclined to get invested.  

Seven Samurai (1954)
by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni

Monday, May 15, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Ikiru (1952) - How to Show a Man's Internal Turmoil

[Quick Summary: When a boring office drone is diagnosed with cancer, he struggles to make sense of his remaining time on earth.]

Ah, the conundrum: How do you show a man thinking/feeling, without dialogue?

In this script (from the master, Kurosawa), it is in the man's reaction (or non-reaction) and interactions with his surroundings.

Note below how our hero, Watanabe, reacts:

[Prior to this scene below, a stranger spews out a list of symptoms to Watanabe.]

ex. "WATANABE is feeling more and more uncomfortable. Quiet sinister music. He changes seats, but the MAN follows him. [His movement away = discomfort.]

Shot of WATANABE becoming more and more uncomfortable. [Watanabe is increasing in discomfort as he absorbs the Man's comments.]

MAN (cont'd): And you won't be able to eat meat, or anything you really like, then you'll vomit up something you ate a week ago; and when that happens, you have about three months left to live.

Cut to a long shot of WATANABE alone in the waiting room. The slow and melancholy music of the opening is heard. He is small in the distance, almost lost in the large waiting room. [Wantanbe alone, far away = Even the positioning of the camera shows how he must be feeling inside.]

A NURSE suddenly calls his name; she calls it several times because he does not hear. He finally hears and rises. The music fades.  [He does not hear the nurse = He is lost in deep thought.]

Cut to the X-ray room; two DOCTORS and a NURSE are waiting.

Cut to WATANABE entering, then a shot of their faces as they wait for him to sit down.

Quick close-up of the DOCTOR's face, then WATANABE's.

DOCTOR: Yes, please sit down. Well, it looks as though you have a light case of ulcers.

Cut to WATANABE's hands. He drops the coat he is carrying. The music begins again. [His reaction shows shock.]

Cut to their faces.

WATANABE: Be honest with me. Tell me the truth. Tell me it's cancer.

The DOCTORS' faces; the NURSE's face; the back of the young DOCTOR's head - he is looking at the X-ray picture. She picks up WATANABE's coat.

DOCTOR: Not at all. It's just a light case of ulcers, as I said.

WATANABE: Is an operation impossible?

DOCTOR: It's unnecessary. Medicine will fix you up.

WATANABE: But what shall I eat?

DOCTOR: Anything you like, so long as it's digestible.

Cut to WATANABE. Hearing this he lowers his head so that it almost touches the desk." [No need to tell us he is discouraged because his movement shows us.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To show a man thinking, show us his reactions and interactions with his surroundings.

Also, sometimes a character in the distance (or in a close-up) may help mimic feeling far or near.

Ikiru (1952)
by Shinobu Hahimoto & Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni

Monday, May 8, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Marnie (1964) - Conned by a Pretty Girl

[Quick Summary: Thief, liar, and embezzler Marnie is caught in a criminal act by wealthy Mark, who falls for her and tries to unravel her frozen emotional past.]

Two Thoughts:

1) PROTAGONIST-ANTAGONIST SWITCHEROO

I want to complain today.* I am irritated.

This is Marnie's story. It is about HER fear of men, desire, and intimacy.

So why does it feel like the protagonist (Marnie) switch to the antagonist in the second half? And antagonist (Mark) becomes the protagonist?

After a little cooling off, I did see that this is a tough adaption.

It is not easy making this character's internal life apparent in the external world.

Marnie is so self-protective, so self-absorbed in her own pain that she doesn't pay much attention to anyone, much less men.   

She has no real motivation to break out of that cocoon...so Mark has to do it.

Though I don't like it, I can see why the writer did it this way.

2) CONNED BY A PRETTY GIRL: Establishing her M.O.

Marnie is pretty, which is why she gets jobs that she is not qualified to have.

In the amusing scene below, we see how she used her looks to con one male owner:

ex. "MED. SHOT - STRUTT AND DETECTIVES

STRUTT (fairly screaming): No damn it! That's Miss Croft! I told you people over the phone! Marion Holland! She's the one! Marion Holland!

One DETECTIVE takes a notebook out as his partner crosses the foreground toward the safe.

DETECTIVE: Can you describe her, Mr. Strutt?

STRUTT: Certainly I can describe her! (his little eyes narrow in bittersweet memory) Five foot five. One hundred and ten pounds. Size eight dress. Blue eyes. Black hair...wavy. Even features. Good teeth...

As he writes the DETECTIVE begins to grin.

STRUTT: What's so damn funny? There's been a grand larceny committed on these premises!

DETECTIVE (straightens his face): Yes sir. You were saying... (reads from notes) 'Black hair, wavy...even features, good teeth...' She was in your employ four months? .... What were her references, Sir?

There is a pause during which the CAMERA MOVES gently forward to include a

CLOSE-UP OF STRUTT ONLY

STRUTT (this one really hurts): Well...as a matter of fact...her...uh...yes, I believe...(lamely)...she had references, I'm sure.

CLOSE-UP - MISS CROFT

MISS CROFT (blandly): Oh, Mr. Strutt, don't you remember? She didn't have any references at all!

CLOSE SHOT - STRUTT AND THE DETECTIVES

STRUTT stiffens with indignation at this betrayal. The DETECTIVES remain tactfully deadpan.

STRUTT (clears his throat): Well...uh...she worked the copying and adding machines...no confidential duties, you know.

He looks off suddenly."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes solutions are downright inelegant and clunky.

On the other hand, it was elegant to expose Strutt's embarrassing mishaps and showcase Marnie's clever con....

Marnie (1964)(shooting draft, 10/29/63)by Jay Presson Allen
From the novel by Winston Graham

*My first complaint: This script is LONG (201 pgs.)

Monday, May 1, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: They Live (1988) - "Compare & Contrast" Technique for a Reveal

[Quick Summary: Down on his luck worker finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see that aliens are keeping humans asleep and enslaved.]

How would you reveal aliens among us?

In this script, writer John Carpenter first grounds us in the mundane...

...and then mixes it with the extraordinary (because he is, after all, Carpenter).

Below, he uses a "compare and contrast" technique to get the reveal across:

a) Nada, our hero, sees a human get into a car (no sunglasses, ordinary).
b) Nada sees an alien (with sunglasses, extraordinary).
c) Nada can't make sense of what he's just seen (can't process the illogical).

ex. "Nada looks over...

HIS POV: (normal, color) as the Well-Dressed Customer walks up to his Mercedes. He drops a full paper on the sidewalk, keeps the business section, gets into the car. Sunglasses come up OVER FRAME (black and white) and now it's a Well-Dressed Hideous Ghoul who shoots Nada a final glance...

VENDOR: Hey buddy -- I don't want a hassle, okay? Either pay me or put it back...

Nada numbly puts back the magazine. He's moving on auto pilot now, staggering past the Vendor who looks at him curiously. Moving on down the street...

HIS POV: THRU SUNGLASSES (black and white), a BUSINESSMAN GHOUL, same awful face, stands at a pay phone...

BUSINESSMAN GHOUL: Don't worry, the insurance company will take care of it."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: "Comparing and contrasting" external situations is an effective way to reveal what a character is having difficulty processing internally.

They Live (1988)
by John Carpenter (written as Frank Armitage)(shooting script)
Based upon the short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," by Ray Nelson*

* I am interested that Nelson is apparently the creator of the propeller beanie.

Monday, April 24, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Halloween II (1981) - Delivering the Promise from the Opening Shot

[Quick Summary: Picking up from the first film, Laurie is transported to the hospital, where she and others are stalked by Mike Myers, who is still alive.]

BAD NEWS: I liked this script but didn't love it.

The stakes are high and it's scary, but...it feels like Halloween 1, the second half.

I guess I'm still not sure what makes a sequel good to meet people's expectations.

GOOD NEWS: I think the opening is a real crowd pleaser.

It acknowledges the loyal audience, "We know why you came: For scares!"

ex. "FADE IN:

MAIN TITLE SEQUENCE

In the middle of a black screen is a pumpkin.

A jack-o-lantern. Two candles on either side cast a flickering orange glow on the carved, grinning face.

CAMERA SLOWLY DOLLIES IN on the pumpkin.

SUPERIMPOSE MAIN TITLES.

Finally the pumpkin FILLS THE SCREEN. The final credit is SUPERIMPOSED.

Then suddenly the pumpkin CRACKS OPEN from top to bottom!

Underneath the meat, pulp and seeds that pour out is a wet, gleaming skull!

                                                                                                                  DISSOLVE TO:
BLACK SCREEN."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I like a script that knows what it is, and delivers.

Here, this is a horror script and it delivers the scares from the opening shot, i.e., the audience knows it's in good hands.

Halloween II (1981)(shooting script, dated 3/12/81)
by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Monday, April 17, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Escape from New York (1981) - Antagonists + 1 Goal = Unity & Clarity

[Quick Summary: Convict Snake Plissken has 24 hrs. to find and rescue the U.S. President in NYC, which now is essentially a prison island ruled by the Duke.]

What I like about John Carpenter scripts: They are very clear.

For example, Escape is about a man vs. his environment.

It could've been confusing because there are multiple antagonists:

First, Plissken commits a crime, then
--> He is jailed
--> He's offered his freedom if he rescues the President from NYC, a place so treacherous that the police avoid it.
--> He arrives in NYC (p. 41) and ducks and dodges criminals to locate the President*
--> He finally meets the biggest antagonist, the Duke (p. 84)*

I think the script was so clear because it has the unity of a single goal, i.e., no matter how many obstacles, Plissken focuses on finding the President and getting him out.

ex. "PLISSKEN: Mister President...

The man turns around. He is DRUNK. He holds a bottle of awful-looking yellow liquid. He wears the President's coat and the vital signs bracelet. He grins drunkenly.

DRUNK: I'm the President. Sure, I'm the President. I knew when I got this thing I'd be President!

Plissken grabs him.

PLISSKEN: Where'd you get it?

DRUNK: Woke up. There it was. Like a miracle!

Holding his arm, Plissken WHACKS the vital signs bracelet against the wall!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Go ahead and create multiple antagonists!

(As long as you have a unity of goal to keep the story focused, that is.)

Escape from New York (1981)(shooting script, dated 6/10/80)
by John Carpenter and Nick Castle

**I was surprised that Plissken gets to NYC so late, and meets the big Duke even later, but it works here!

Monday, April 10, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Fog (1980) - How Long Before the Bomb(s) Detonate(s)?

[Quick Summary: On the evening before its centennial celebration, a small northern Californian town and its citizens are attacked by vengeful supernatural fog.]

Let's say you know there is a bomb under the table.

How many pages into a script do you have to know WHY it was placed there?

In this script, the writers were able to postpone it until p. 45! That's amazing.

So how did the writers keep us interested between p. 1-44?  I found a few hints:

- There are multiple bombs detonating all the time.
- The bombs are not all the same.  ex. The first one is like a smoke bomb, i.e., destructive but not deadly.
- The bombs happen at random, like shark attacks.
- The citizens have to figure out that bombs are happening. 
- Then they have to discover the bombs have a pattern.

I don't want to spoil the reveal WHY, so here is a sample of an early "smoke" bomb:

ex. "INT. CAR

...Nick puts the truck in gear and starts up again. The MUSIC onthe radio ends and Steve's voice comes on.

STEVE (voice over radio): It's four and a half minutes after midnight and let me be the first to wish Antonio Bay a Happy Birthday. We're one hundred years old today!

Suddenly the driver's window next to Nick SHATTERS wildly into a million pieces!

ANGLE ON FRONT WINDOW

The entire front window SHATTERS, BLASTING inward!

ANGLE ON ELIZABETH

She SCREAMS and the passenger window CRASHES in on her!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It's ok to postpone the WHY of a bomb. 

We can build suspense in the meanwhile: who might be a potential victim; the consequences for the town during a public celebration; etc.

The Fog (1980)
by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Monday, April 3, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Halloween (1978) - Delivering a Gripping Script on a Low Budget

[Quick Summary: A babysitter and her friends are stalked by evil Mike Myers who has just escaped an asylum.]

Three Things I Find Fascinating About This Script:

1) Carpenter made it for $300k and thought it didn't need a sequel:
But Michael Myers was an absence of character. And yet all the sequels are trying to explain that. That’s silliness – it just misses the whole point of the first movie, to me. He’s part person, part supernatural force. The sequels rooted around in motivation. I thought that was a mistake.
2) Mike Myers is a super-scary character BECAUSE he has no motivation:
But it was a movie where the main character, the guy in the mask, really isn’t altogether human. He has no characteristics. He's, uh, almost like a machine. He was just pure evil. That was what I intended to do. It's evil out of nothing, evil from no background, which completely creeps me out as a human being, that evil could arrive at my doorstep without a purpose, without a past, without an origin. So that's the idea behind it. It was put together to scare you. That’s all.
3) This script reads very fast, and does not read like a low budget film. Why?

I think it's because Carpenter:
- knew the film was going to be done on the cheap
- knew he had to deliver the scares
- knew that he had to deliver SOMETHING that didn't require stunts, car chases, etc.

So he cranked up the levels of tension about what was to happen next (also known as Hitchcock's "bomb under the table.")

ex. "[Dr.] Loomis glances at Marion as she lights a cigarette. She shoves the matches into the pack and tosses it on the dashboard. Loomis stares at the cigarette pack. The pack of matches reads: "The Rabbit in Red Lounge -- Entertainment Nightly." Loomis turns his eyes back to the rain-slicked road. [This is a setup for a later payoff.]

LOOMIS: Ever done anything like this before?
MARION: Only minimum security.
LOOMIS: I see.  [This feels bad.]
MARION (defensively): What does that mean?
LOOMIS: It means ... I see.
MARION: You don't have to make this any harder than it already is.
LOOMIS: I couldn't if I tried. [Yes, it is really bad.]
MARION: The only thing that ever bothers me is their gibberish. When they start raving on and on... LOOMIS: You don't have anything to worry about. He hasn't spoken a word in 15 years. [This is really, really bad! I am anxious. What is next?]

Both of them suddenly stare out the windshield in front of them.

POV THROUGH WINDSHIELD -- FIELD

Through the rain we see a field off to the side of the road. Dimly lit by the car headlights are FIVE PATIENTS, dressed in wind-blown white gowns, drenched by the rain, wandering aimlessly around the field."  [So, so bad! HOW WILL THIS END??!!]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I like that this script puts the focus on what it can do (increase tension), and not on what it cannot (big effects, CGI).

It does not whine about its budget nor try to overcompensate ("aren't we clever!")
  
Halloween (1978)(shooting draft, dated 4/10/78)
by John Carpenter and Debra Hill

Monday, March 27, 2017

2016 OSCARS: Moonlight (2016) - Explaining A Bit of Local Jargon

[Quick Summary: Told at three ages, this story follows abandoned Little/Black who is struggling in Miami to survive life and figure out his sexuality on his own.]

As I was reading this script, I didn't really pay attention to the setting.

Later, I realized how important Miami is to this particular story and filmmakers.

Without the beach, the ocean, and sunny temperatures, it's a different story.

Miami also has its own lingo, as every metropolitan city does.

I liked how the writer explained a bit of local jargon without dumbing it down or insulting the reader's intelligence. 

It is matter of fact and informative (the insult is insulting, but not too insulting):

ex. "Black nodding.

BLACK: Can't picture bein' in Miami with no car, man.

KEVIN: Yeah it's real out here.

BLACK: I bet.

KEVIN: Real slow, real hot, real busted, got me like a duck out here.

Both laughing at that, you can be called a lot of things in Miami and next to snitch, duck is about the worst."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be afraid to explain a bit of local jargon, if it helps the reader understand context. 

Without the explanation, I would've been clueless if "duck" was a good or bad thing.

Moonlight (2016)
by Barry Jenkins
Based on "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue", by Tarell Alvin McCraney

Monday, March 20, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Lion (2016) - After the "All is Lost" Moment; Coincidence

[Quick Summary: Twenty five years after being lost in an Indian railway station, Saroo, who now lives in Australia, struggles to identify his small Indian hometown and family.]

Q: How does one EARN an "all is lost" moment?

A: A character tries, and tries, and tries, but cannot accomplish a goal --> He/she falls into despair, depression, discouragement, i.e., "All is Lost" (AIL).

Q: But then how does he/she RECOVER (or NOT) from it?

A: A few suggestions:

- First, recognize that AIL is a turning point. Now life will either get better (something positive happens) or worse (something negative).

- Second, after the AIL moment, the recovery (or not) moment needs to be truthful.

It does not have to be big, drastic, or unusual.

It's even ok if it seems coincidental because it does happen in life.

In this script, Saroo tries, and tries --> All is Lost --> The recovery seems to happen by coincidence, by chance...but it's the truth!

ex. "INT. LIVING ROOM, BEACH HOUSE - NIGHT

....Saroo slumps down on the couch. End of the road. He has to move on too.

Over on the Wall: that mess he's just made. [Here begins the All is Lost moment.]

The laptop sits open on the couch. He leans across, places his finger on the trackpad, follows a train line -

- then starts to flick the track pad, faster. So that before the station has time to reach full resolution -

- he flicks again, carelessly, without method.  [He's mad that all his efforts have failed. He is careless, which is a natural reaction to failure.]

And suddenly - it's a kind of goodbye - he veers off the rail line completely - out over land - and more land -  [He's on a destructive spree.]

- doing on the SCREEN what he just did on the WALL -

- random shifts, here, there, left, right. Jerky. EVERYTHING starts cascading in his psyche, as his memories make their final fight for life. So we see MAD SNIPPETS and FLASHES:

GUDDU - COAL THEFT - DAM - JOY - UNDERPASS - STREETS - WATERMELON ACCIDENT - HIDE AND SEEK WITH SHEKILA AND KAMLA.

- and on and on it goes - interwoven with the Google Earth search on screen, as Saroo carelessly continues flicking the cursor, saying goodbye to the search as his past and his memories disintegrate into fragments -  [More images that equate to a middle finger, "burn it all down" mentality.]

He stops. Exhausted. His face perfectly blank. Equally randomly now, he tap-tap-taps on that "Zoom Out" minus sign. 

He ZOOMS OUT, higher. Higher. We're now staring down on a good chunk of India.

Scrolling, Saroo flicks quite a distance left. Still just random moves. We are now way outside the search perimeter.

Nothing maters. Flick, flick. Who cares? [He's exhausted. All is Lost moment ends.]

And then: something stops him. He tilts his head - [The recovery begins here. Hope?]

ON THE SCREEN: an expanse of ochre fields.

He pulls the laptop onto his thighs. Something about that COLOR. Still as the Sphinx, he stares at the screen."  [On the one hand, it seems like coincidence. On the other, it follows naturally from the destructive behavior. Like a phoenix rising from ashes.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The AIL moment is a turning point.

The recovery (or not) moment after AIL can be wild or "coincidental", but must be truthful.

Lion (2016) 
by Luke Davies
Based on the book A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley

Monday, March 13, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Hidden Figures (2016) - Style (Showy) vs. Substance (Story)

[Quick Summary: Katherine Goble/Johnson works through the mathematics and politics of a 1962 workplace to help put an American into space.]

**clapping**

Three Reasons I Applaud This Script:

1) This is probably the fastest that I've read an Oscar script.

2) It totally sucked me into another place and time (so rare).

3) Some scripts are a pain to read because style (showy) wins over substance (story).

This script was a pleasure to read because style was always in service of story.

For example, the story opens on Katherine as a child. She is above average smart. 

How would you have shown how smart she is?

Does another child mock her? Does she get an award? Show off? Spout off?

The writers chose a less showy, but more effective way that keeps us on track.  (Also, I feel this probably reflects more truly of who the real Katherine is):

ex. "In darkness, the voice of a little girl. Counting.

LITTLE GIRL (V.O.): 14, 15, 16...prime. 18, prime.  [A little girl knows what a prime number is?!]

EXT. TREE LINED PATH - DAY

A pair of little feet navigates down a gravel path. Kicking a pine cone.

LITTLE GIRL (O.S.): 20, 21, 22, prime, 24, 25, 26... [I didn't know what prime numbers were until high school. And here, she's counting...for fun.]

Pulling up, we reveal: KATHERINE COLEMAN (8), a peculiar, quiet, mouse of a child, wearing glasses bigger than her bookish face. Counting to herself. 

A VOICE (her Mother's) in the distance hollers out:

JOYLETTE COLEMAN (O.S.): Katherine! Come on now!

Katherine looks up. Sees a car stopped at the end of the path. She runs off. Counting all the way."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked that the writers did not try to shoehorn the characters into outlandish situations (showy). 

Instead, they got out of the way and allowed the characters' traits to surface, and that created conflicts more organically.

ex. Katherine thrived on data, but Man #2 withheld data, claiming she didn't have 'clearance' --> She figured it out anyway and left Man #2 with egg on his face.

Hidden Figures (2016)
by Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly

Monday, March 6, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Fences (2016) - When a Play Format Works in a Screenplay

[Quick Summary: Troy and Rose, a black couple in 1957, struggle with life's disappointments and unexpected curve balls.]

I used to be a self-righteous script snob: "You can't do...", "You shouldn't do..."

I say "self-righteous" because I'd read a lot of books on writing scripts and listened to a lot of podcasts about scriptwriting, but had not actually READ a lot of scripts.

Then I read and studied a lot of scripts. A lot, a lot, a lot. It took longer than I'd liked.

This screenplay, Fences, is in play format.*

My former self would've screeched, "That's wrong formatting!"

But my wiser self today says: "Who says it's wrong? It works here. That's smart."

This script was written this director and cast, some of whom had done the play.

It delivered what was needed to tell the story (characters, tone, mood, etc.), and little of what is not (ex. details on the house).

Note how the writer lays out the essentials (character, conflict), i.e., Rose's contradictions let us know that Troy is a unreliable narrator.  All else is imagination.

ex. "ROSE: I told him if he wasn't the marrying kind, then move out they way so the marrying kind could find me.

TROY: That's what she told me. "Nigger, you in my way. You blocking the view! Move out the way so I can find me a husband." I though it over two or three days. Come back -

ROSE: Ain't no two or three days nothing. You was back the same night.

TROY: Come back, told her... "Okay, baby...but I'm gonna buy me a banty rooster and put him out there in the backyard...and when he see a stranger come, he'll flap his wings and crow..." Look here, Bono, I could watch the front door by myself...it was that back door I was worried about.

ROSE: Troy, you ought not talk like that. Troy ain't doing nothing but telling a lie.

TROY: Only thing is...when we first got married...forget the rooster...we ain't had no yard!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Forget "rules." Use whatever works to convey your story.

(Ok, ok, there are guidelines that might help, but I don't like calling them 'rules.')

Fences (2016)
by August Wilson
Based on his play

* Fences was originally a stage play, and was adapted into a screenplay by the playwright.

Monday, February 27, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Arrival (2016) - What They Don't Tell You About Transitions, i.e., Linking

[Quick Summary: A linguist establishes contact with 12 alien "shells" to find out why they have come to Earth.]

I scoff that I once thought transitions were easy.

It is just "getting in and out of scenes," right?! Nope. There's more.

I liked what Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer, and a hoot on Twitter) tweeted:
TODAY'S CHALLENGE: Transitions. Remove the slug lines (INT./EXT.) and examine scene relationships. 
When I don't have a slug line announcing a new scene for readers, it forces me to forge a cinematic link between them.  I start to think about why and when I'm leaving one scene, and how it connects to the visual or audio of the next one. But the stronger you bind one scene to the next, the more you protect them from unnecessary changes later. More and more, I'm learning that great storytelling is about the relationship: of two shots, of two scenes, of two characters, etc. (1/30/17)
Transitions are what link a scene(s) together.

Without those links, the reader will: 1) not get your vision, and/or 2) stop reading.

Let's try to identify the links in this scene:

ex. "INT. BARRACKS - MORNING

ON A LAPTOP SCREEN: Aerial footage of the Shell appears. Back from a safe distance. The Shell looks, as always, intimidating.

But now with the footage is a SINISTER SCORE added by shock-jock radio host RICHARD RILEY, who emphasizes words -- [This scene opens on tv footage on a laptop screen.]

[For brevity, I cut out Riley's dialogue here.]

REVEAL the LAPTOP is in:

The military barracks. And PRIVATE LASKY listens intently to it. Nodding. Glancing out the open flaps of the barracks tent toward the giant Shell in the distance.

[We see we are in military barracks.  This establishes our location.]
[The 1st POV is Lasky, who agrees with the shock jock.]

Three bunks over, a group of SCIENTISTS watch a news program on a separate TV, following riots somewhere. Could be Prague, could be Detroit. One SCIENTIST shakes his head in disgust. Outside, Louise walks past the barracks, on her way to --"

[The 2nd POV are the scientists, who are concerned about the rioting.]
[We glimpse a 3rd POV, Louise.]
[Note how this one scene shows three distinct POVs, without any dialogue. This links them AND contrasts how each one feels about the present events.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked the idea that the stronger my transitions, i.e., linking scenes, the bigger the chance that they will stay in the final draft.

Arrival (2016)
by Eric Heisserer
Based on the story, "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang

Monday, February 20, 2017

2017 OSCARS: 20th Century Women (2016) - Conveying Uncertainty and Vulnerability

[Quick Summary: Dorothea (55), her son Jamie (15), the renter upstairs, Abbie (28), and Julie (17) try to make sense of life in the 1979.]

In this script, Dorothea tries to connect with her son, but it's awkward and imperfect, as real life parenting often is.

To me, this script really stands out because it conveys the day-to-day uncertainty and vulnerability of life so well as a parent, a child, or just a person.

I liked how each character continues to pursue their needs in the face of uncertainty.

I liked that the writer allows the characters to be hurt and vulnerable, i.e., human.

For example, in the scene below:
- Dorothea (mom) wants to connect with Jamie (son)
- Jamie wants to be cool and grown up and doesn't know how
- Abbie wants to "jam on" and forget her present life

ex. "INT. ABBIE'S ROOM - NIGHT

Jamie  and Abbie sit together, listening to The Raincoats - Fairytale In The Supermarket.  Abbie's looking at the cover, Jamie's looking through her other records.

Dorothea appears in the doorway, observing her son, and his obvious love of this. She enters, sits down and listens with them, an awkward moment.

DOROTHEA: What is that?

ABBIE: It's The Raincoats.

She nods awkwardly to the beat, trying to relate.

DOROTHEA: Can't things just be pretty?

JAMIE: "Pretty" music's used to hide how unfair and corrupt society is.

DOROTHEA: Ah, okay so... they're not very good, and they know that, right?

He just looks at her - 'why're you still here' - she looks at him confused by his pushing her away. Seriously curious.

ABBIE: Yea, it's like they've got this feeling, and they don't have any skill, and they don't want skill, because it's really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that's raw. Isn't it great?

CU on Dorothea feeling like an outsider, lost."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For me, the gateway into these characters were their uncertainties and vulnerabilities.

I connected because they didn't have all the answers, but kept trying.

20th Century Women (2016)
by Mike Mills

Monday, February 13, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Manchester by the Sea (2016) - Flashbacks that Expand Present State of Mind

[Quick Summary: After his brother dies, a building custodian goes back to his hometown as his nephew's guardian, and faces the ghosts that haunt him.]

I did not expect to like this script as much as I did.

(A very reliable friend had told me, "Great dialogue. Too slow.")

Though I haven't seen the film yet, I found it deeply moving on the page. 

Two thoughts:

1) It reads extremely fast.  Always double points!

2) It is an unusual use of flashbacks to peer into the main character's (Lee) present state of mind.  He experienced trauma a few years ago, but it is still raw.

His emotional state then = His emotional state now.

In the scene below, Lee makes a positive statement about Dr. Betheny --> The flashback expands on his POV of Dr. Betheny, but it is not an "information dump."

ex. "INT. HOSPITAL ELEVATOR

Dr. Muller and Lee ride down very slowly.

LEE: How is Dr. Betheny?

DR. MULLER: Oh, she's doing very well. She just had twin girls.

LEE: Oh yeah. Irene told me.

DR. MULLER: Apparently weigh about eleven pounds apiece. So she's gonna have her hands full for a while...I'll call her this afternoon and tell her what happened.

LEE: She was very good to him.

DR. MULLER: Yes she was.

EIGHT YEARS AGO --

INT. JOE CHANDLER'S HOSPITAL ROOM. DAY.

JOE CHANDLER, Lee's older brother by five years, is lying in the hospital bed. There's a close resemblance between them.

ELISE, Joe's wife, the same age as Joe, pretty, anxious and high-strung -- stands near to STANLEY CHANDLER -- Lee and Joe's father, 70s. He sits in one chair. LEE sits in another.

They are all listening to DR. BETHENY, 30s. She is small, intense, very serious and focused and level-headed, but thoroughly well-meaning and decent. The bed area is curtained off from the other patients in the room.

DR. BETHENY: The disease is commonly referred to as congestive heart failure --

ELISE: Oh my God!

DR. BETHENY: Are you familiar with it?

ELISE: No...!

JOE: Then what are you sayin' "oh my God" for?

ELISE: Because what is it?

JOE: She's tryin' to explain it to us, honey. I'm sorry, Dr. Beth...uh...

DR. BETHENY: Betheny

JOE: I'm sorry. I can never get it right.

DR. BETHENY: Don't worry about it. Not a problem."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Flashbacks are interesting when used to show a stuck character's present state of mind.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
by Kenneth Lonergan

Monday, February 6, 2017

2017 OSCARS: La La Land (2016) - Seduction & the Slippery Slope

[Quick Summary: In modern L.A., an actress and jazz musician struggle with making compromises while chasing their dreams.]

BAD NEWS: I liked it, but didn't love it.

GOOD NEWS: There's a lot going for it.  It's focused, full of emotion, and hope.

I especially liked how it shows:
- Success as a slippery slope.
- Seduction is the first step on that slope, and it often is a small, innocent step.

In this story, the main character (Sebastian) wants to open an old school jazz bar of his own.  He has resisted modern elements, and is scraping by.

When a modern jazz band offers him big bucks, he reluctantly agrees to meet.

Watch below how success with this band pulls him further from his dream: 

ex. "KEITH: Let's play, see how it feels.

He pulls out a guitar. Cole starts on drums. Keith joins in. Malcolm and Tom follow suit. Sebastian listens. It sounds like modern jazz - electronic in feel, but still jazz...

Sebastian approaches the keyboard. Joins --slowly, one step at a time. Then begins playing out a bit more, his fingers starting to race. Malcolm gives Keith a look: "Damn.". Keith gives Malcolm a look back: "I told you so." Bit by bit, Sebastian eases into the groove. This isn't so bad...

Then -- Keith move to a LAPTOP. Introduces a DRUM-MACHINE SAMPLE.

Sebastian, into the music, is caught off-guard. Uneasy now. This isn't him...

Keith plays a riff on his guitar. Tom echoes it on bass, then Malcolm on trumpet. Now it's Sebastian's turn. He hesitates. And then -- finally -- he plays the riff...

It doesn't feel so bad. The guys build on the riff. Sebastian keeps up with them, trying to let go of his presuppositions. [This bolded line is my emphasis. This is why seduction works. How can this small step be harmful?!]

After all --these guys can play ..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Seduction down the slippery slope often begins with one small innocent step...and then another...

La La Land (2016)
by Damien Chazelle

Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 OSCARS: Hell or High Water (2016) - Showing What the Character is Thinking

[Quick Summary: Two brothers go on a spree robbing banks to save their family ranch, while two Texas Rangers track them down.]

What a beautifully written script! Spare, economical, and bristling with energy.

It suits the story, which is about two brothers who survive on their wits and nerves.

The script stays lean by often "showing, not telling" what the characters thought.

In the scene below, how do we know Marcus does not want to retire?

ex. "INT. TEXAS RANGER'S OFFICE -- ABILENE, TEXAS -- DAY

MARCUS HAMILTON, two weeks shy of 70, thick silver mustache, sits at his desk. A large Texas flag tacked to the wall behind him.

He looks over a LETTER from the DPS HEADQUARTERS in Austin. The heading says it all: Mandatory Retirement Referendum.

The letter is worn at the edges -- Marcus has spent a fair amount of time looking it over. [Clue #1: Well worn retirement letter = He's been studying it. This is the setup.]

Marcus packs a can of Copenhagen with fifty year's worth of skill, and sticks a pinch inside his lip.

A younger Ranger, and by younger I mean 50, walks in. His name is ALBERTO PARKER, and aside from his olive skin, he looks almost identical to Marcus: thick mustache, beer belly, gold star on a starched white shirt, bone colored Stetson hat.

PARKER: You hear about these bank robberies?
MARCUS: Why you always dress like me? [Clue #2: He prolongs things. Why?]

Beat.

PARKER: This is our uniform.
MARCUS: We ain't got no uniform. You can wear any color shirt you choose. You just keep choosing mine.
PARKER: Texas Ranger regs say white, blue, or tan dress shirt. Stands to reason every so often we gonna end up dressed the same.
MARCUS: Well, they say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Alberto. Did you know that?

Alberto is half Comanche and half Latino, though his twang is as pronounced as any cowboy.

PARKER: Wanna hear about these bank robberies or just sit there and let Alzheimer's run its course?
MARCUS: Where at?
PARKER: First Texas in Archer City and First Texas in Olney.
MARCUS: FBI looking for an assist?
PARKER: Ain't theirs. First Texas ain't got branches outside the state. Not interstate commerce.

A flicker of fire ignites in Marcus's eyes. [Clue #3: The hunt stirs him.]

PARKER (cont'd): You may get to have some fun before they send you to the rocking chair yet.

Marcus's chair squeaks as he leans back.

MARCUS: ... I may have one hunt left in me." [Clue #4: He admits what he wants. This is the payoff from earlier.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  How do I know if the reader will catch on to the 2 +2 that I crafted? Simplest is best.

Here, the scene was crafted so that:
the letter (setup) + idiom in the dialogue (payoff) = He doesn't want to retire.

Hell or High Water (2016)
by Taylor Sheridan

Monday, January 23, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Little Women (1933) - Change of Pace = Change of Progress

[Quick Summary: Four sisters come of age during the American Civil War.] 

Two thoughts:

1) I hate the bland description "coming of age", but it's the best I can do here.

2) The pacing is absolutely killer, and among the best I've ever seen.*

The introduction to the script describes it this way:
The adaptors made use of a large variety of episodes, with sudden changes of pace within the individual scenes. These contrasts increase the drama and add to the suspense, because, in effect, they advance or retard the aims of the main character. Even the most casual events are so arranged as to emphasize these contrasts. For instance, the gay spirit that pervades the Christmas breakfast scene is suddenly changed to one of sympathy for the plight of a more unfortunate family...p. 214.
There's no formula, but the writers varied the pacing FOR SPECIFIC REASONS:

➤Sometimes they wanted the uncertainty first (fast; What will the party be like?)
--> Quiet moment in the middle (slow; Will Beth get over her shyness?)
--> Then a happy note at the end (fast; We're all friends now!)

➤Sometimes they had a happy scene (fast; Jo and Laurie) --> Then end on a somber note (slow; Jo leaves for the city).

➤Sometimes the writers wanted to stretch the tension (slow-slow) --> Then suddenly release the tension (fast-fast).   Note the stretch below with Amy and Mr. Davis --> then release after leaving Mr. Davis.

ex. "SCHOOLROOM - CLOSE SHOT. Amy is sobbing. Davis turns over the slate which has cartoons of himself on one side of it.

DAVIS (angrily): I can see there's nothing for me to do but stop by and show your mother how, instead of doing your sums, you cover your slate with sketches -

INSERT: SLATE with sketches of spectacled teacher, and legend: "Young ladies, my eyes are upon you."

DAVIS: -- most uncomplimentary sketches.

SCHOOLROOM - MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS, looking down, sternly. Amy is heard sobbing.

CLOSE-UP AMY looking up in his direction, sobbing as she pleads:

AMY: Oh, please, Mr. Davis. I'll never do it again, sir. And she'd be so disappointed in me. Please -

MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS looking odwn in Amy's direction. He relents.

DAVIS: Well I should hate to spoil her Christmas and for that reason alone, young lady, I shall overlook it.

CLOSE-UP AMY looking up in his direction, delightedly.

AMY: Oh, thank you, Mr. Davis!

MED. CLOSE-UP DAVIS looking down.

DAVIS (sternly): You may go!

CLOSE SHOT as Amy speaks gratefully:

AMY: Oh, thank you, Mr. Davis.

He exits as CAMERA FOLLOWS HER as she backs away toward the cloakroom, still speaking.

AMY: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you, sir. (She starts to open door.)

HALL CLOAKROOM - CLOSE SHOT. The girls are standing about waiting in excited speculation as to Amy's fate. Amy enters, drying her tears. The girls close the doors and swoop down on her, all talking at once and asking: "What did he do?" "What did he say?"

AMY (with lofty disdain): I just said that if I ever told my mother the way he treated me, she'd take me out of his old school. She's never been reconciliated anyway, since my father lost his money, and she's had to suffer the degarradation of me being thrown with a lot of ill-mannered girls -- (she turns at the door, drops some of her elegance, and gives it to them straight:) -- who stick their noses into refined people's business! (She leaves them flat. They look after her, then turn to each other and murmur indistinctly.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Change of pace = Changes as the protagonist advances/retards his/her progress. 

It's also invisible, like rhythm, but very much felt by the reader.

Little Women (1949)
by Sarah Y. Mason & Victor Heerman
Adapted from the novel by Louisa May Alcott

* After all, this was written for George Cukor and Katherine Hepburn.

Monday, January 16, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: 12 Monkeys (1995) - Cues & Repetition (Transition Helpers)

[Quick Summary: A prisoner from the future travels back in time to prevent the mutation of an epidemic virus, but everyone thinks he's a lunatic.]

This script is crazy.  It circles back and eats itself (in a good way).

I applaud the writers for attempting this fractured time line and keeping it clear.

It's as if they took 4 photographs (A, B, C, D) and sliced it into pieces.  They then reassembled them, but still moving story forward (ex. A1, C1, B1, A2, D1, B2, etc.)

I was so impressed at the clear transitions (my most elusive nemesis!)

I discovered two more helpful tips for smoother ones:

1) Cues
2) Repetition

ex. "INT. CONCOURSE/AIRPORT - DAY

...YOUNG COLE turns back toward the Security Check Point just as TRAVELERS scatter madly, some diving to the floor, others running. A TERRIFIED TRAVELER, hitting the floor close by, loos up at YOUNG COLE with panicky eyes, and asks... [Repetition of a recurring dream]

TERRIFIED TRAVELER:  Just exactly why did you volunteer?

INT. ENGINEERING OFFICE/FUTURE WORLD - (ETERNAL NIGHT)

COLE comes abruptly awake. [Cue that Cole has been dreaming.] Seated now, he's facing the SCIENTISTS. [Cue that reorients the reader to the present.]

ASTROPHYSICIST: Wake up, Cole.

COLE: Uh, I didn't hear the...

MICROBIOLOGIST: (tapping a pencil on the table) I asked you, why did you volunteer? [Repetition from above]

COLE: Well, the guard woke me up. He told me I volunteered. [Repetition from earlier scene]

The SCIENTISTS react, whispering urgently among themselves."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When you need to reorient the reader to multiple times and places, cues and repetition are your friends.

12 Monkeys (1995) 
by David Peoples & Janet Peoples
Inspired by LA JETEE, a Chris Marker Film

Monday, January 9, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Lady for a Day (1933) - 10 Sequences; "Glorified Hokum"

[Quick Summary: Panhandlers and con men rally around their fellow Apple Annie to make her a "lady for a day" to impress her daughter and rich European fiancee.]

This was Robert Riskin's first film with Frank Capra.*

It is not my favorite, though an entertaining ensemble story.

Two things that intrigued me:

A) Riskin broke the story into 10 "sequences":*** 

1- Everyone loves Apple Annie. She writes a letter to her daughter, who grew up in Europe. (4 scenes)
2 - Annie's daughter is coming to the US for the first time, and doesn't know Annie has been lying about her social status. (8 scenes)
3 - Fellow panhandlers ask Dude, a gangster who considers Annie as his lucky charm, to help pull off an elaborate hoax. (4 scenes)
4 - Hoax get complicated, including a fake husband for Annie. (7 scenes)
5 - Daughter arrives with fiancee and suspicious future father-in-law. (13 scenes)
6 - Duke smooths the way for a party for the engaged couple, including making a nosy reporter temporarily disappear. (2 scenes)
7 - Father-in-law asks uncomfortable questions. Duke has panhandlers trained to be respectable party guests. (10 scenes)
8 - Police put pressure on Dude, as 3 reporters go missing. (4 scenes)
9 - Spirits are low. Dude rouses the troops with a speech. (4 scenes)
10 - Big resolution. The couple leaves for Europe. Happily ever after. (37 scenes)

If I had to group them:
- Act 1 (1, 2, 3)
- Act 2 (4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
- Act 3 (9, 10)

B) Why does Dude and everyone else go to such lengths for Apple Annie? 

Out of heartwarming human decency for a friend. I liked that.

Cynics may say that it's just hokum, but I do not care.

"Glorified hokum" gives me hope and I'll take it any day. ***

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Any time I spot a grouping of scenes, it gives me food for thought. I always ask, "Why were they grouped that way?"

Also, I'm a sucker for well done, glorified hokum.

Lady for a Day (1933)
by Robert Riskin
Adapted from a story by Damon Runyon

*Capra must have really liked the story since he remade it 28 yrs. later as "Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), his last film.

** The # of scenes are slightly misleading, as they include intercutting.

*** "Unquestionably this is a script in which the deft handling of situations and characterizations makes of an ordinary story a piece of glorified hokum. And hokum, well done, makes excellent entertainment!" - Editor of the published script, p. 25.

Monday, January 2, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Lost Horizon (1937) - When the Protagonist Has No Internal Motive

[Quick Summary: A group is kidnapped and flown to Shangri-La, but it's not as idyllic as it seems.]

Ooof. Tough adaption.

I gather that the novel was problematic to adapt for film.

For example:
- The protagonist gets to Shangri-La and is seduced by its charms.
- Then he wants to leave, but there's no real motive to go.

A passive protagonist is ok in a novel, but in a film? Yikes!

So, the writer did what had to be done: He added things that were not in the book.*

He gave the protagonist a brother, George, who wants to leave Shangri-La and is not deterred. It's not a glamorous fix, but now there's a motive for the protagonist to act.

ex. "MARIA: (a little hurt) You promised to come for tea yesterday. I waited for so long.

GEORGE: I'm sorry. (chagrined to discover he has no cigarettes left) I haven't even got any cigarettes left!

MARIA: I'll make some for you! (pleading) You will come today?

GEORGE: (after a pause) Perhaps.

MARIA: (tenderly) Please say you will. The days are so very long and lonely without you. (a whisper) Please...

GEORGE: All right. I'll be there.

MARIA: (happily) Thank you.

GEORGE: (suddenly) You'll tell me some of the things I want to know, won't you? You'll tell me who runs this place. And why we were kidnapped. And what they're going to do with us?

CLOSEUP - MARIA
From the moment he starts to speak, her face clouds. George's voice continues without interruption.

GEORGE'S VOICE: Chang's been lying about those porters, hasn't he?

She runs off, frightened."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm surprised at how many changes were made, including a new external motive, and the novel's author was STILL HAPPY. 

I find this extremely instructive. Keep the book's structure, if you can.

Lost Horizon (1937)
By Robert Riskin
Adapted from the novel by James Hilton

* Amazingly, the author approved as he "knew the rules of the game": "Of course, he had to change several things; he asked me about them all. They were none of them important. If you wrote them all down I suppose it would sound as though they'd made a lot of changes. That wouldn't be fair. None of the changes are structural. They don't affect the theme or the central story."  p. XVI.