Monday, November 20, 2017

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Strange Days (1995) - From Scriptment to Draft

[Quick Summary: Lenny, a shady dealer in VR "experiences," is trying to find a psycho-sexual killer who killed his friend Iris and may be after his ex-girlfriend.]

Director Ridley Scott said in a round table interview recently
The studio head's job, I think, is read the fucking material. You can't delegate material. I can tell within a paragraph whether I'm going to be in good hands or not. By the time I get to page 10, I'm beginning to perspire because I'm thinking, "Please don't drop the ball; please don't drop the ball." Page 30, I'm now beads of perspiration. "Holy shit, we're really getting there." And so writing is everything. Everything else is dressing. Sorry, actors. (Laughter.) (my emphasis)
Is that really true? Yes.  One gets a "feel" after reading many scripts.*

What about material that is admittedly messy and too long? Yes, even then, there's a focus, a feel that "I'm in good hands." 

Today's scriptment is a good example.  It's a messy and flawed early draft, but there's a solid story spine, the setups and payoffs, etc.** 

The script drops and adds things, but keeps the essentials from the scriptment.

One thing that I liked in both drafts was that they kept the odd, futuristic mood.

The scene below is nearly the same in both drafts:

ex. "A stairwell. Lane sprinting up, two steps at a time. Trying the door at the second floor landing. Locked. Shit.

Running up. Dizzying whirl as we run, up and up.

The POV is finally broken by a ...
                                                                                          CUT TO:

INT. UNDERGROUND GARAGE

But we don't know where we are yet. We see a man in extreme close-up: just his eyes and mouth. The eyes are closed, the eyeballs tracking under the lids like he is watching a movie in there. This is LENNY.

LENNY: This is great...the doors are all locked. Who are these losers, friends of yours?
                                                                                          CUT TO:

BACK TO POV as we reach the fifth floor landing. Lane is coming unglued as he finds this door locked. We look down, see cops coming two floors below. One cranks off a couple rounds at us and we snap back from the railing. Pounding up the last flight. Finally! The door is unlocked."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The writer's most important job is to convey the ideas from the head to the page.

It doesn't have to look great, but it does have to be on the page.  This is very helpful in case someone else has to take over the writing duties (as happened here).

Strange Days (1995)(Cameron's published scriptment)
by James Cameron

Strange Days (1995)(script draft dated 8/11/93)
by James Cameron and Jay Cocks

*How do I define "many"? When I was at a small production company, I estimated:
-About 30-40 new scripts came in the door every week.
-The development execs read between 10-20 on weekends, maybe another 10 during the week.

**The scriptment is worth reading to see how Cameron thinks.  In his words:
So what you have in your hands is at once a kind of pathetic document; it is as long as a script, but messy and undisciplined, full of cheats and glossed-over sections. But it is also an interesting snapshot of formatting a moment in the creative process. It contains notes and references and textures that do not exist in the finished script. It takes the time to gaze around at a grim future world and paint it in neon colors...it gets in the mood first, then tells the story. p. ix.

Monday, November 13, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993) - Learning From a Passive Protagonist

[Quick Summary: In 1973, Sissy, who has enormous thumbs, is a hitchhiker, a hygiene model, and a witness to a feud involving a cowgirl ranch and drugged whooping cranes.]

When I read scripts for a production company, I went in cold.

I liked that I knew nothing, and could judge the scripts solely on their merits.

This is still my preferred approach, and I apply it to all the scripts that I read here.

One of the side effects is that I occasionally read produced scripts that I Do Not Like.

I know you're wondering, "Are these scripts worth reading?"

Yes, though I admit that people (including me) don't like the fact that this takes a little more energy.*

However, I've found that these scripts can teach me unexpected things.

For example, this is a script that I Do Not Like.  Here are a few thoughts:

PROS
- This script reads fast.
- Sissy travels a lot and has several significant life experiences (emotional, sexual).

CONS
- Sissy is an acute observer of all the colorful characters, which is fine in a novel, but boring in film.
- She is often the bystander, i.e., passive.
- She lacks purpose or goals, so the other characters take over.

NOTES:
- I found this structure (of the scene below) repeated often in this script.
- Jelly is the head of the ranch.
- Sissy SEEMS active because she's interacting with Jelly.  However, Sissy is the passive one and Jelly is actively running the scene.

ex. "INT. RANCH COTTAGE MORNING

A FIST pounds on Sissy's door.

IN SAILS Jelly, a cowgirl so cute she makes Sissy blush just to look at her. She wears a tan Stetson with an aster pinned to it, a green satin shirt embroidered with rearing stallions snorting orange fire from their nostrils....

Jelly grasps Sissy's elbow and sits on the side of the bed.

JELLY: Welcome podner. By God, it's great to have you here. It's an honor. Sorry I took so long getting to you, but we've had a mess of hard work these past few days - and a heap of planning to do.

SISSY: Er, you seem to know who I am, and maybe even what I am. Thanks for breakfast.

JELLY: Oh, I know about Sissy Hankshaw, all right. I've done a little hitchhiking myself. Ah shucks, that's like telling Annie Oakley you're a sharpshooter because you once knocked a tomato can off a stump with a fieldstone. I'd heard tales about you from people I'd meet in jail cells and truckstops. I heard about your, uh, your, ah, your wonderful thumbs, and I hear how you were Jack Kerouac's girl friend...

Sissy sets her tray on the bedside table.

SISSY: No, I'm afraid that part isn't true. Jack was in awe of me and tracked me down. We spent a night talking and hugging in a corn field, but he was hardly my lover. Besides, I always travel alone.

JELLY: Well, that doesn't matter; that part never interested me anyway. The beatnicks were before my time and I never got anything outta the hippies but bad dope, cliches and the clap. But the example of your life helped me in my struggle to be a cowgirl....

SISSY: Tell me about it.

JELLY: About...

SISSY: About being a cowgirl. What's it all about? When you say the word you make it sound like it was painted in radium on the side of a pearl.

JELLY: Cowgirls exist as an image image. A fairly common image...."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Protagonists do not have to physically move in every scene, but they do need to be moving toward a goal or with purpose in every scene.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)(5th draft, dated 7/6/92)
by Gus Van Sant
Adapted from the novel by Tom Robbins

* It's another reason why I don't want to know anything. Otherwise, I'd avoid them like the plague.

Monday, November 6, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Red Dragon (2002) - Action, Tension; Creepiness

[Quick Summary: To stop a serial killer, FBI agent Graham, who was injured while bringing in Hannibal Lecter, must once again ask Lecter for help.]

How does this thriller/horror/adaption stay on track with SO MUCH going on, i.e., multiple story lines, twists and turns, a ticking clock, etc.?

I thought Roger Ebert had two great thoughts on this:
1) "Lecter is a character who commands contemplation and unease, and too much action just releases the tension." (emphasis mine)
ex. I noticed that both Graham and Lecter themselves are often very still, despite the constant movement around them.  Less is more here.
2) "But this movie, based on Harris' first novel, has studied "Silence of the Lambs" and knows that the action comes second to general creepiness. There are stabbings, shootings, fires, explosions, tortures, mutilations, and a flaming corpse in a wheelchair, but within reason." (emphasis mine)
In other words, "story before spectacle." Action serves story, not the other way.

In the scene below, note:
- A little bit of action, a lot of tension
- Creepiness comes first, then action

ex. "INT. LECTER'S STUDY. NIGHT.

...Graham drops into a chair. Lecter, who's been waiting politely, sits behind his desk. Graham leans forward urgently. Despite his weariness, his face is alive with fierce excitement.

GRAHAM: We've been on the wrong track this whole time, Doctor. you and I. Our whole profile is wrong.

Lecter is very still; there is not a flicker of emotion; he just watches Graham, like someone studying an insect.

GRAHAM (cont'd): We've been looking for somebody with a cray grudge. Some kind of anatomical knowledge, decertified doctors, med school dropouts, laid-off mortuary workers -

LECTER: From the precision of the cuts, yes. And his choice of - souvenirs.

GRAHAM: But that's where we're off target. He's not collecting body parts.

LECTER: Then why keep them?

GRAHAM: He's not keeping them. He's eating them.

Lecter just watches and listens."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I need to set my characters up better with flaws and clashing desires from the start. 

Tension flows a lot more easily from character this way.

Red Dragon (2002)
by Ted Tally
Based on the novel by Thomas Harris

Monday, October 30, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: All the Pretty Horses (2000) - What a Good Vertical Read Looks Like

[Quick Summary: In 1949, two young Texans ride to Mexico to work as ranch hands, which is complicated when one falls in love with the owner's daughter.]

***WARNING***: Advanced skills ahead. Not for the impatient new writer.

I normally don't read first drafts, but this is the only version that I could get.

So why am I reading a first draft at all?

First, it's Ted Tally adapting author Cormac McCarthy.

Second, it reads like greased lightning,* despite being an early draft.

How does he make the pages fly by? Why did I gobble up pages and forget time?!

One answer is the ease of vertical reading, which I blogged about earlier.  In brief:
-It's easier to read down the page when there's less black print.
-It's easier to read faster with short sentences.

However, this script reads quickly EVEN WITH:
- Paragraphs of narrative
- Occasionally long dialogue

Why does it work here?  The truth is I don't know, but I suspect the following helps:
-This is an adventure in a foreign land (Mexico).
-This is a test for these young boys (16-17 y.o.) to graduate into manhood.
-In the scene below, note that it's all movement and action verbs.
-Note the ease of grasping a paragraph, i.e., a shot, with one eye sweep (L-->R).
-Also note the unusual ease of eye sweeping diagonally and down.**

ex. "INT. CORRAL - DAWN

Rawlins and John Grady approach the corral carrying forty-foot maguey catchropes coiled over their shoulders, saddle blankets, a riding hackamore with a metal noseband, and John Grady's Hamley saddle with its stirrups shortened. Two or three vaqueros are drifting along after them, sipping their morning coffee, ready to be entertained. Rawlins mutters.

RAWLINS: We mess this up, bud, its goin to be a long ride back to Texas.

JOHN GRADY: Ride, hell.

When the boys reach the gate, we see stacked on the ground there are more coils of rope, of assorted sizes and materials, along with a pile of hand-fashioned rope hackamores. Rawlins lifts the wire loop and opens the gate and the two of them go inside, closing the gate behind them.

The mustangs shift and stir at the far end of the corral, eyeing the boys suspiciously...

John Grady sets down his saddle and catchrope then squats to adjust the hackamore. Rawlins stands building his catchloop. He has a pile of sideropes slung around his neck.

RAWLINS: We goin to bust these varmints twice?

JOHN GRADY: What for?

RAWLINS: Cause I never seen one yet that completely believed it the first time. Or ever doubted it the second.

JOHN GRADY: I'll make em believe. You'll see.

RAWLINS: I'm goin to tell you right now, cousin. This is a heathenish bunch.

JOHN GRADY: Then let her rip.

Rawlins steps forward with his catchloop. At his approach the horses move skittishly along the fence. As the first one breaks away from the herd, Rawlins rolls his loop and forefoots the colt, which hits the ground with a tremendous thump. The other horses flare and bunch wildly.

Before it can struggle up, John Grady has run to the animal, squatting on its neck. He pulls its head up and to one side, holding the horse by its muzzle with its face against his chest, its nostrils flaring. The huge wet eyes roll in terror, staring into his from inches away. He cups his hand, stroking over the eyes, and all the while murmuring into the horse's ear in a low, steady, comforting voice.

JOHN GRADY: Esta bien. Esta bien...No hay peligro, entiende...? Esta bien. De acuerdo. Eresmuy guapo. Muy fuerte y valiente...

Working swiftly, as John Grady continues to murmur, Rawlins has dropped a slipnoose around the pastern of a hind leg, then halfhitched that to a foreleg. Now he frees the catchrope, tosses it away, then takes the hackamore and slips it over the horse's muzzle and ears. John Grady runs his thumb into the animal's mouth and Rawlins fits the mouthrope, then slipnooses a second siderope to the other rear leg. Then he clips both sideropes to the hackamore. He looks up.

RAWLINS: You all set?

JOHN GRADY: All set.

John Grady lets go of the horse's head and both boys step quickly away. The horse struggles up, turns, shoots out a hind foot, snatches itself in a half circle, then falls down. It gets up, kicks again, falls down again...

The vaqueros exchange glances at this curious procedure...

The colt gets up again, snorting, hopping up and down in a furious dance, snatching its head about, then finally pausing to glare at the boys.

RAWLINS: These sumbucks are as crazy as a shithouse rat.

JOHN GRADY: You pick out the one you think is craziest and I'll give you a finished horse this time Sunday week.

RAWLINS (grins): Bullshit.

                                                                                            FADE TO:
EXT. THE SAME - MIDMORNING

By now there are a dozen vaqueros standing along the fence, all watching with keen interest as...

John Grady jumps away from another horse's neck; the colt lurches to his feet, tries to kick him, falls down. Half of the horses are now hobbled, while the other half race and scatter in a rising sea of dust...

                                                                                           FADE TO:

EXT. THE SAME - NOON

The crowd of spectators has swelled to thirty or more, and now includes women and children as well. More people are drifting up from the direction of the hacienda's gate, some of them even carrying blankets and picnic supplies..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I often forget the importance of movement and action verbs.

All the Pretty Horses (2000)(1st draft revisions, dated 11/1/93)
by Ted Tally
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy

*This is one of Tally's trademark skills that also defies genre. ex. This is a Western. His other scripts: Thriller. Procedural/Thriller. Crime/Thriller.

**As noted in my previous post, readers will skim vertically to read as fast as possible. What can you do to help them read faster?

Monday, October 23, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Before & After (1996) - Emotional Engagement in a Thriller

[Quick Summary: When a teenage girl turns up dead, the parents of the prime suspect (girl's boyfriend) struggle to navigate the emotional repercussions.]

Ah, the 1990s, how I miss your emotionally engaging thrillers.

Today's thrillers are often so plot driven that they lose some humanity, i.e., making mistakes, showing vulnerability, making the audience worry.

This story has its issues,* but the script is good at making me feel.

First, I like that Jacob's parents (and sister) are the protagonists, not Jacob.

We're experiencing the consequences of his actions from the parent or sibling POV. This sheds a different light, i.e., how the people who love you experience your pain.

Second, I like how the writer externalizes the internal conflict.  This is tough!

In the scene below, Carolyn is Jacob's mother.

ex. "EXT. POOR FARM ROAD - DAWN

POV ANGLE, MOVING across the site where Martha's body was found. Trampled snow, a highway shoulder. Many tire tracks, footprints. In one area the snow is still tinged pink. Several small floral tributes have already been left here, on the ground or tied to the split-rail fence. Hand-written notes, heartrending little signs: "Martha, We Love You" ... "For MT from BK & CG"... "God Keep Our Angel." [We see the sad scene that Carolyn is seeing - the blood, the tributes.]

Carolyn turns away, her eyes moist. It is bitter cold. She stares off into the woods. After awhile she climbs over the fence, walks in amongst the trees, staring all around, looking for - what? She doesn't even know. Any sign at all of her son. A few more halting steps, then something stops her ... [She can barely process all this roiling emotion: trauma, loss, uncertainty.]

A spot where the ground is churned up, clods of frozen dirt mixed with the snow. Like a shallow grave. [Primal fear strikes her heart.]

Choking back a cry, Carolyn falls to her knees, begins scrabbling at the snow with her gloved hands. no good. She looks around, seizes a piece of fallen branch, stabs at the snow with this, almost frantic, till a voice stops her. [She's reacting without thinking.]

VOICE: Ma'am?

Carolyn turns, frightened...

It's Tommy, the young cop we met at the house. He looks down at her anxiously from the fence. His cruiser idles nearby, pulled in behind Carolyn's Audi.

TOMMY: We've been all over this area? And that's just somebody's dog.

Carolyn stares up at him, becoming aware of how she must look - dirty, wild-eyed, her breath steaming... [Very vulnerable, very human. I look a mess.]

But Tommy's face shows only a kind of embarrassed sympathy."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To keep thrillers fresh, find another way into the story.

I don't think the tried-and-true formula of following the perpetrator here (Jacob) would've been as effective.

Before & After (1996)(dated 9/20/94)
by Ted Tally
Based on the novel by Rosellen Brown

*I can see why the critics didn't like it as a film:

"The story elements here are dramatic, but it's impossible to determine what the point of the film is. The characters behave stupidly and pay a price for it. There are no bad characters, and no lessons to be learned."    

Monday, October 16, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Juror (1996) - An Emotionally Compromised Villain

[Quick Summary: "The Teacher" threatens a female juror in order to manipulate her, then becomes enamored with controlling her.]
Each film is only as good as its villain. Since the heroes and the gimmicks tend to repeat from film to film, only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph. - Roger Ebert
To me, this script stands out because of The Teacher, a cold and calculating villain.

1) The Teacher is a typical bad guy who enjoys the power play...

The Teacher keeps Annie (protagonist) in line by threatening her son Oliver. 

This is a fairly typical setup, but his added pleasure in his work increases my disdain.

ex. "INT. RODNEY'S CAR - DRIVING - DAY

The Teacher stares at Annie's hand, till she forces herself to release his sleeve. He smiles.

THE TEACHER: Don't you trust the Teacher, Annie?

ANNIE: Yes. I trust you! Yes.

THE TEACHER: But it's like trusting in the whim of God, isn't it? This random Rodney, he does whatever he pleases. He just drifts...

He lets the car slide out into the left lane. The pastures are just a green smear, whipping by. Annie puts her wrist to her mouth, bites at it, staring through the windshield.

THE TEACHER: The least error, and you're plunged into hell...Annie, what if he should suddenly wake up and see he's in the wrong lane? He overcompensates -

He turns the wheel sharply and floors the accelerator, and suddenly, they're aiming straight at Oliver. Six hundred yards away...five hundred...

EXT. THE ROAD AHEAD - DAY

Oliver is on the right-hand shoulder, the same side as the car. As it roars down behind him, on a killing path, he is still unaware of it. Four hundred...Three hundred...

INT. RODNEY'S CAR - DRIVING - DAY

Annie is curled into a terrified ball, her feet almost on the dash. she claws at her own face, screaming.

ANNIE: OH GOD! OH GOD! PLEASE!

THE TEACHER: Who will protect you?

ANNIE: THE TEACHER!

THE TEACHER: Who will shield you?

ANNIE: THE TEACHER!

THE TEACHER: Did you say the judge?

ANNIE: NO! JUST YOU! JUST YOU! MY GOD! GOD! PLEEEEEAAASSSE!

She slams her hands against her door, the seat, her feet are kicking the dash, she is screaming, screaming, her eyes locked on that purple shirt dead ahead of them...."

2) ...But he's also emotionally involved (though may not recognize it).

This is what ups the ante. He seems rational. He think this is just business.

But the truth is that he's irrational, and it's very PERSONAL.

He cannot see himself objectively and deludes himself, which makes me curious to see what happens next.

ex. "INT. THE TEACHER'S COTTAGE - DAY

The Teacher stops the tape, rewinds, punches up the volume. When he plays this segment again, we can hear the SOUND very distinctly. It's Annie shushing her son.

ANNIE (on tape): Shh. (beat) Juliet? No. Do your homework.

The Teacher turns...

On ONE wall of the attic, across from his electronic racks, we see a visual catalogue of Annie's life. Photos of her house, grocery store, laundromat. Maps of her movements. Copies of photos we've seen in Annie's own house - friends relatives, Mickey. These artifacts are labelled, dated, cross-referenced, minutely annotated. The display is frightening, almost unhinged in its obsessive detail: the Annie Museum. Centered, almost like an altar, is a large facial closeup of Annie, and beside this, a grainy enlargement of her santos figure."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I like the irony that this villain thinks he is in control of everything, but cannot control himself.

The Juror (1996)(2nd draft dated 3/18/95)
by Ted Tally
Based on the novel by George Dawes Green

*Ebert also stated that this general principal applied to all epic serials, especially the "James Bond" movies.

Monday, October 9, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Bound for Glory (1976) - A Multi-Layered, Multi-Purpose Goodbye Scene

[Quick Summary:  In 1936, Woody Guthrie leaves the dust bowl of Texas for the lure of work in California, where his folk music career begins.]

My Three Random Thoughts:

1) EASY READ. I liked, but didn't love, the script. Kudos for being a smooth read.

2) POLITICSEbert writes that "Guthrie's politics were central to his music, and yet in the film they seem almost superfluous; the politics could have emerged organically from the narrative, instead of being shoehorned in."

Hmmm...they were fine on the page. I wonder if it just didn't translate over to film?

3) SAYING GOODBYE. I liked that this script was rather objective about Guthrie.

It showed his warts and all: he was kind, but he had a temper. He loved his family, yet he cheated on his wife.  He built a home, yet his wanderlust kept him away.

All of these contradictions are seen in the goodbye scene below.

NOTE:
- This is not just a goodbye to the family, but goodbye to his old life too.

- In an earlier scene, there's a song about "Them California waters taste like cherry wine." Now in this scene, cherry wine = going to California. (Setup --> Payoff)

- Observe the lovely economical writing that transitions us through the goodbye:
Guthrie's note --> Food for the road --> Saying goodbye to guitar --> Takes brushes to earn a living painting signs --> Leave $$ for family --> Say goodbye without using "goodbye" --> Long shot of him walking from old life toward new life

"INT. GUTHRIE HOUSE - DAY
Mary and the children can be HEARD in the back yard as Woody hurriedly tapes a note to the cooler door. As he opens it, we read,"Gone to California, will send for you all...Love Woody." He grabs a couple of pieces of bread and a chunk of cheese from the cooler and shuts the door. Woody goes to the couch, picks up his guitar, plucks it a couple of times, sets it back down and takes a harmonica from a table and puts it in his pocket. He goes to a corner of the living room, reaches into a cardboard box and pulls out three or four paint brushes and stuffs them into his pocket, at the same time taking out a dollar or two and laying it on the table. As he starts for the front door, Mary's VOICE calls:

MARY'S VOICE: Woody, you home?

Woody pauses by the door.

WOODY: Yeah, but I'm jus' leavin'...

MARY'S VOICE: Where you goin'?

WOODY (after a beat): Ta get some cherry wine...

MARY'S VOICE: When you comin' back?

WOODY: Don't know, fer sure...

He hesitates, then goes out the door.

EXT. GUTHRIE HOUSE - LONG SHOT - DAY

Woody exits the house and walks in opposite direction of the "Pampa Texas" sign."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be afraid to give a character time for a goodbye scene, nor the following long shot scene, which finishes the sequence.

I tend to ax those kinds of long shots for length concerns, but am learning that this is a bad knee jerk reaction.  This script is much better with that long shot.

Bound for Glory (1975)(dated 8/11/75)
by Robert Getchell
Based on the autobiography of Woody Guthrie

Monday, October 2, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: A Bridge Too Far (1977) - The Kid Spy (With Thick Glasses)

[Quick Summary: To end the war, the Allied air and ground troops try to secure key bridges in the Netherlands to close off Germany from the north. (Sept. 1944)]

GOOD NEWS: This is a previously unseen William Goldman script.

BAD NEWS: This could very well be a great film, but...on the page, I disliked it.

Maybe because it covers so much ground? I found myself wishing that I cared more.

GOOD NEWS: There were still some great character moments.

My favorite was "The Kid With the Thick Glasses" who was his own spy:

ex. "EXT. ROAD NEAR HARTENSTEIN HOTEL - DAY

A GERMAN SENTRY. Armed. Well turned out, creased trousers, polished boots. He moves into the road, raises his hand.  THE KID WITH THICK GLASSES stops.
(This scene is IN DUTCH - SUBTITLED)

GERMAN SENTRY: Go back.

KID WITH THICK GLASSES: --but I want to --

GERMAN SENTRY: -- you will do as directed.

KID WITH THICK GLASSES (near tears --frightened and upset --he points on past the hotel): But my friend --she lives down the road and...It is my birthday -- she has a present --my present. (stares up at the sentry) Please?

GERMAN SENTRY (finally gestures for the kid to go through): Be quick.
                                                                                                                         CUT TO
EXT. ROAD BEYOND HARTENSTEIN HOTEL - DAY

THE KID WITH THICK GLASSES as he zooms on by the place. He doesn't seem to pay much attention, just glances at it once once as we
                                                                                                                        CUT TO

EXT. ROAD NEAR HARTENSTEIN HOTEL - DAY

THE SENTRY. Watching. Nothing arouses his suspicions.
                                                                                                                        CUT TO

EXT. ROAD NEAR HARTENSTEIN HOTEL - DAY

THE KID WITH THICK GLASSES, pumping on, rounding a bend, and the instant he's out of sight of the SENTRY -- he brakes, whips out a piece of paper and a pencil stub and starts to make a sketch.
                                                                                                                        CUT TO
EXT. SKETCH - FLAG - DAY

The sketch. It's a copy of the flag that we planted on the lead staff car. As THE KID continues to draw, licking his pencil stub, scratching away --
                                                                                                                        CUT TO
INT. UNDERGROUND LEADER'S HOUSE - KID'S ROOM - DAY

Another drawing of that pennant. Only this isn't a quick pencil sketch of it, this is much more carefully done. It's in color and the colors of the flag are pretty close to what the actual flag looked like."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I liked that a "kid spy" was how the writer brought us into the underground spy network (vs. an adult spy acting all mysterious).

A Bridge Too Far (1977)(draft dated 3/29/76)
by William Goldman
From the book by Cornelius Ryan

Monday, September 25, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Parallax View (1974) - The Difference the Protagonist's Career Can Make

[Quick Summary: In this draft, a police officer tracks down the shadow entity that wants to kill him, and uncovers a government wide conspiracy.]

OK, OK, I know it was 1974...

...and investigative reporters were hot in films...

...but I still wish they'd stuck to this script and kept the protagonist as a cop.*

Both Fradys (as an investigative reporter, as a cop) witness an assassination and then are targeted because they witnessed it. Both go on the run.

However, I find that idea of Frady the cop more appealing.

First, it would be more threatening. If no one believes Frady the cop, will anyone?!

Second, it would be a more layered, morally complex character.**  Frady the reporter could disregard questions that would require a few extra steps for Frady the cop.

Read the scene below with: a) Frady as reporter, and b) Frady as cop. 

Do you, like me, have different experience/expectations with reporter vs. cop?

ex. "INT. FRADY'S OFFICE - DAY

Frady enters and stops short, like seeing a ghost.

ANOTHER ANGLE

A GIRL is standing by the window. Her name is HILDY. She's in her early 30s and quite attractive enough to explain Cpl. Harmon's whistle, and her attempt to hide her obvious uncertainty isn't very good.

HILDY: Hello, Frady. Surprise.

CU - FRADY

He just looks at her. His eyes are strangely cold. Then his eyes go off her as ANGLE LOOSENS.  Making a point of not looking at her, he hangs his jacket on a hook but leaves on his shoulder holster as he goes to desk and yanks open a bottom drawer.

FRADY: How you get in here?
HILDY: Said I was engaged to you.

No look, no comment. Frady takes a bottle from the drawer. Antique label says "Sloane's Horse Liniment," but it's probably not that because he uncaps it and drinks a slug.

HILDY: I had a heck of a time finding you. I never dreamed you'd be a policeman.
FRADY: Me neither.
HILDY: I'm terribly glad you are.
FRADY: I'm glad you're glad. Why?
HILDY: It's the damnest thing. It's -- Look at me, won't you?

He won't. He sticks bottle away, wipes his mouth with back of hand, starts shuffling papers on his desk.

FRADY: Talk of damnedest things. Your first name's Hildy, but in -- let's see - ummmn - - in nine years, I've forgot your last.
HILDY: Miller. Look at me.
FRADY: Hildy Miller -- don't you know why seeing you makes me so sad?
HILDY: Of course. I don't like to be reminded either.
FRADY: Then what's the score?
HILDY: Someone wants to kill us, Frady.

CU - FRADY

He turns his head at last. He looks at her.

FRADY: Us."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I was surprised at how much the story changed for me depending on the career.

As a reporter, the story seemed more plot driven; as a cop, more character driven.

Parallax View (1974)
by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Based on the novel by Loren Singer

*Even Roger Ebert noticed:  "A couple of years earlier, the hero of "The Parallax View" would probably have been a cop or a private eye. But what with Woodward and Bernstein and all, Warren Beatty plays a newspaper reporter instead."

**Ebert comments: "Beatty, in the central role, does a fine, taut job, but the movie is so straightforward that it doesn't ever require the superior acting he's capable of; plot seems so much more important than character here that it doesn't matter that this is Warren Beatty. And that's a waste, because he doesn't need one-dimensional roles." (my emphasis)

Monday, September 18, 2017

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: The Seventh Seal (1957) - Formatting Myths

[Quick Summary: While he staves off dying by plays chess with Death, a knight searches for the meaning of God's absence among the country folk he meets.]

This is the 2nd of the two of the most infuriating truths that no one tells you:

Quest. #2: This script is in single spaced paragraphs!! Where's the formatting?! Why didn't they follow the (fill in the blank) book on formatting?!

Answer #2:  Here, the script is written by and for the director.

Each line is a shot and reads easily in paragraph form.

It works for Bergman here, but may not work for everyone. (Try it yourself.)
-------------------------------------
But since I'm on my high horse, may I share some Hard Won Truths?

Q: Don't script readers care about formatting?
A:  They DO NOT CARE about formatting as long as it's a good read.

Q: When do they care?
A: When YOUR writing gets in the way of THEIR reading.

Q: Doesn't bad formatting "get in the way"?
A: It's an easy way to spot the experienced vs. non-experienced, but it's not the top reason to reject your script.

Q: Wait, what?
A: Bad formatting isn't enough since it is too easily fixed.  More likely, it's a deeper script problem.*

Q: What do you mean?
A:  Many non-writers (and many writers) are confused by problems that just LOOK like formatting issues on the surface, ex. bad structure, bad transitions.

These all use the same tools and cues but for very different reasons and effects.

ex. Formatting - Make sure "INT. KITCHEN" is all caps, spelled correctly, right font.

ex. Transition - INT. KITCHEN needs to be scrapped for INT. HOUSE and one continuous shot of woman running in front door --> hallway --> kitchen --> back door. No individual headings, as it would disturb the building momentum.

Q: But I like formatting! What's wrong with formatting?! Wordsmithing?
A: I like them too. But if we're honest, those are the easier parts. You want to get paid for the tougher stuff.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Study and pay attention to what works (or doesn't) in other scripts.

It's the only way to master the harder skills.

The Seventh Seal (1957)
by Ingmar Bergman
Adapted from his play

*I only mention things that are within a writer's control above.

Remember that there are many things that are NOT within your control.  ex. Sometimes the timing is lousy. Or five scripts enter the market together with the same concept.  Or the producer lost funding.

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Seventh Seal (1957) - Juggling Humor into a Serious Film

[Quick Summary: While he staves off dying by plays chess with Death, a knight searches for the meaning of God's absence among the country folk he meets.]

This script demonstrates two of the most infuriating truths that no one tells you:*

Quest. #1: It's about the "silence of God"? Why bother with such old fashioned film?

Answer #1: I had mixed feelings after reading this script.

First, this story doesn't have a clear cut objective to accomplish.

The Knight asks "Where is God?" and the answer is a struggle. With Death. With meaning. With day to day life. Yikes.

Second, however, this script did keep me entertained while discussing a serious topic.

What a major juggling feat!  How did the writer do it?

Perhaps we could get a few insights from this recent review of another 2017 film:
This is the story of a kid learning his parents aren’t perfect and all of his neighbors are violent racists. Without any humor or interesting characters to keep the film entertaining, that’s a tough premise for a movie. And it’s tonally impossible to balance. It makes “xxx” a comedy with almost no laughs and a drama with no depth. (underline mine)
Hmmm....Humor or interesting characters keep the premise alive and the tone balanced. Eureka!

Here, the Knight's search for answers to the silence of God (heavy premise) is palatable because of his travels with actors Jof and wife Mia (interesting characters), who add humor and fun.

Note below how life goes on despite Death stalking Knight (life vs death):

ex. "JOF stands in the hot sun with a flickering lantern in his hand. MIA pretends to be asleep on a bench which has been pulled forward on the stage.

JOF: Night and moonlight now prevail Here sleeps my wife so frail...

VOICE FROM THE PUBLIC: Does she snore?

JOF: May I point out that this is a tragedy, and in tragedies one doesn't snore.

VOICE FROM THE PUBLIC: I think she should snore anyhow.

This opinion causes mirth in the audience. JOF becomes slightly confused and goes out of character, but MIA keeps her head and begins snoring.

JOF: Night and moonlight now prevail. There snores - I mean sleeps - my wife so frail..."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Tone has always flummoxed me, so I'm glad to have clearer insight into how humor affects a heavy drama's tone.

The Seventh Seal (1957)
by Ingmar Bergman
Adapted from his play

* FYI: I had too much to say, so here's the first of two posts today.

Monday, September 11, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) - An Unusual Form (Elegy)

[Quick Summary: A 19 y.o. Robert Ford can not imagine how his hero worship of suspicious and violent Jesse James could lead to tragedy.]

This script really threw me.  It's odd, but I didn't know why. 

In my greener days, I would've been quick to dismiss it:

CONS
- It's rather plotless for the first 50+ pgs. until it picks up pace.
- The last 30 pages seem like an epilogue gone too long.

But when faced with an unusual script, I know now to take a step back and look:

PROS
- In pgs. 55-100, there's great suspense and a dueling between Bob and Jesse.
- The purpose of the scenes is different than other scripts. It's less about plot, more an attempt to capture a feeling. Here, it's knowing that loss is coming.

I think the closest analogy is an elegy, "a mournful, melancholy poem, especially a funeral song or lament for the dead." *

Notes for the scene below:
- Prior to this, Bob has killed Jesse's cousin but is unsure how much Jesse knows. Now Jesse has come to Bob's relative's house and he baits Bob.
- This is a bittersweet moment. Bob finally gets what he's been wanting (Jesse's acceptance) but now his hero is a threat.

ex. "BOB: How come George has a grudge against you?

JESSE: Hmmm?

BOB: You said George Shepherd had a grudge against you and I've just been wondering what it was?

JESSE: Oh. George asked me to protect this nephew of his during the war and it so happens the kid had five thousand dollars on him. The kid winds up killed, and all the money swiped from him, and when George was in in prison someone whispers to him it was Jesse James slit the boy's throat.

CHARLEY: Just mean gossip, was it?

JESSE: Bob's the expert; put it to him.

BOB rises from the table like a stamping boy in a snit.

JESSE: I've make him cranky.

WILBUR snickers.

BOB: I've been through this is all. Once people get around to making fun of me, they just don't ever let up.

MARTHA: Someone's speaking awful fresh over there!

BOB is forced to walk past JESSE to get to the main room. JESSE kicks a leg across BOB'S path, clouting the floorboards with his boot. BOB glances down at his bogus grin - the suggestion of malice beneath his antics.

JESSE: I don't want you to skip off to your room and pout without knowing why I dropped by for this visit.

BOB: I suppose you're going to tell us how sorry you are that you had to slap my cousin Albert around.

Such a great heat seems to come then from JESSE'S eyes that BOB glances away as if from sunlight, but in a second the man cools and says:

JESSE: I come to ask one of you two Fords to ride with me on a journey or two. I guess we've agreed it ought to be Charley; you've been acting sort of testy.

BOB stands pale and silent. Then he steps around JESSE'S boot and calmly climbs the stairs to the upper room."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I can see why this script would be a tough sell. It's harder to grasp than a traditional narrative form.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)(dated 12/8/04)
by Andrew Dominik
Adapted from the novel by Ron Hansen

*"The elements of a traditional elegy mirror three stages of loss. First, there is a lament, where the speaker expresses grief and sorrow, then praise and admiration of the idealized dead, and finally consolation and solace."

Monday, September 4, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Omen (1976) - Horror = Fear, Dread, or Dismay

[Quick Summary: After he is convinced to swap in another baby for his stillborn, an American ambassador and his wife are not prepared for the destruction that follows.]

ME: "What exactly is horror? 
MYSELF: It's blood and guts.
ME: That's lazy. This script is clearly horror, i.e., scary, but WITHOUT much blood and guts. So why is it still horror?
MYSELF: How does the dictionary define it?
ME: "(n.) painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay."
MYSELF: A-ha! Now you see why used the shorthand of "blood & guts"?

In other words, rely on "fear, dread, or dismay" (not blood & guts).*

ex. "INT. LIBRARY

Thorn turning to Kathy; pleased.

KATHY: I like her.
THORN: Yes.
KATHY: Where did you find her?
THORN (taken aback): Where did I find her?
KATHY: ...Yes.
THORN: I didn't find her, I assumed you found her.

They exit.

INT. ENTRY HALL - ANGLE ON KATHY

KATHY (shouting up the stairs): Mrs. Baylock!

INT. UPSTAIRS - SAME - ANGLE ON MRS. BAYLOCK

about to open the door to the child's room.

MRS. BAYLOCK (turning): Yes?

ANGLE ON KATHY

ascending the stairs, Thorn behind her; pausing as they reach the landing.

KATHY: I'm sorry, we're a little confused.
MRS. BAYLOCK (stiffening): Why is that?
KATHY: We don't know how you got here.
MRS. BAYLOCK: By taxi. I sent it away.
KATHY: What I mean is, who 'called' you?
MRS. BAYLOCK: The agency.
KATHY: ...The agency?
MRS. BAYLOCK: They saw in the papers you'd lost your first nanny, so they sent you another.

ANGLE ON KATHY

amazed.

THORN: ...very enterprising.
KATHY: I'll call to confirm that.
MRS. BAYLOCK: That'll be fine. Here are my references.

There passes an uneasy silence: all staring dumbly at each other.

MRS. BAYLOCK: If you'll excuse me now.
KATHY (uneasy): Yes, of course.

Mrs. Baylock reaches for the door...                                                                  CUT TO:

INT. THE CHILD'S ROOM - SAME

as the boy sits on the bed gazing out the window...slowly turning as he hears the door opening.

ANGLE ON THE NANNY

ENTERING; closing the door behind her, and locking it -- turning to gaze at the child. As she does, her expression transforms --her body stiffening, as though she is gazing upon something of incomparable beauty.

ANGLE ON THE CHILD

vaguely frightened.

CLOSE ANGLE ON MRS. BAYLOCK

moved.

MRS. BAYLOCK (fighting to control her voice): ...Fear not, little one. I'm here to protect Thee.

CAMERA HOLDS on her face."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: For horror, it's all about building the fear, dread, or dismay.

The Omen (1976)(dated 9/8/75)
by David Seltzer

*I once read a spec horror script that was pages of blood and gore, but failed to build any fear/dread/dismay. It was boring. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Femme Fatale (2002) - Voyeurism & Increasing Tension

[Quick Summary: A double crossing French con woman flees her conspirators, and when she's forced to return home, she runs a con to avoid the retribution.]

As mentioned last week, De Palma chooses "more controversial terrain: suspense, violence and eroticism."

I'd also like to add "voyeur" a minor addition to the list.*

Voyeurism is all about:
- Watching and seeing, which is why it works well with film format.
- Danger of being discovered, which increases the tension.

But how do you make 'watching and seeing' interesting on the page?

My two thoughts: 

1) As always, the audience always need to wonder what is going to happen next.
2) But in this script, the added twist is that even the voyeur is wondering.

Note in the example below:
- How each scene lures the voyeur (and us) into wanting to see more
- How there is danger to Larry, to Mrs. Watts, which keeps us anxious, curious

[FYI: Larry is a papparazzo following Mrs. Watts, the femme fatale.]

ex. "INT. LARRY'S VW - AFTERNOON

...As the driver's side of the LEXUS sweeps past [Larry], he catches a glimpse of a face.

A classic model's profile if [sic] wasn't marred by that ugly shiner spreading out from under her sunglasses and down her left cheek.

Could this be the LADY OF THE HOUSE with "photo op" written all over her face?

LARRY speed after her to find out.... 

EXT. PLACE PIGALLE - NIGHT

The LEXUS parks in front of a SEX SHOP. LARRY finds a parking place across the street as MRS. WATTS gets out of her car and walks over to a STREET WHORE. They talk for a few seconds, then MRS. WATTS folls the STREET WHORE into the shop.

LARRY, grabs a camera out of the car, and crosses the street to get a closer look.

Through the window, he watches MRS. WATTS talk to the MANAGER. LARRY snaps off a few shots. A little insurance in case SHIFF tries to muscle him again.

The MANAGER motions MRS. WATTS to follow him. As they move toward the rear of the store, the STREET WHORE turns to face the front door. LARRY ducks down out of sight. He retreats back behind a newsstand. When he turns back to look, the STREET WHORE has returned to the street and MRS. WATTS and the MANAGER have vanished. LARRY rubs his hand across his mouth. What the hell is going on? He looks up and sees two figures silhouetted in the second story window. One's a woman. One's a man. They appeared to be in a heated argument. Finally the woman opens her purse and flings something down on the floor. The man kneels down to retrieve it. The woman slowly pulls up her skirt, turning her back to the window. Her hand reaches behind her back and grips at the shade cord. Grabbing hold of it, she pulls down the shade, cutting off LARRY'S VIEW.

A few minutes later, MRS. WATTS emerges from the SEX SHOP carrying a BROWN SHOPPING BAG. She gets back into the LEXUS and drives of.

What was that all about? A bag of sex toys for an evening adventure? A perplexed LARRY continues tailing her....

LARRY watches from his car as MRS. WATTS checks in[to a hotel]. While she's occupied with the DESK CLERK, LARRY slips out of his car, crosses the road, and looks into the side window of the LEXUS. Resting in the bottom of the SHOPPING BAG is a GUN and a BOX OF BULLETS.

LARRY ducks down from view as MRS. WATTS returns to her car, takes out the SHOPPING BAG and returns to the hotel. LARRY follows."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even in 'watching and seeing' scenes, the character is actively reacting to what he/she is seeing.

Femme Fatale (2002)(dated 11/21/00)
by Brian De Palma

*I hope that critic Roger Ebert might agree with me.  He wrote: "This is a movie about watching and being watched, about seeing and not knowing what you see."

Monday, August 21, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Body Double (1984) - Writing an Erotic Scene

[Quick Summary: An out-of-work actor watches a beautiful woman through a telescope, and when she is murdered, he chases her killer.]

I don't really like reading sex scenes on the page.

Frankly, they're often handled poorly, and I do not appreciate the writer trying to show off and/or shock me with yet another orgy scene that is neither sexy nor erotic. 

So what's does a good erotic scene look like on the page? 

I find it ironic that I cite this De Palma script as a good example.*

However, I admit that he explains well about what it should look like on the page: **
A lot of filmmakers think that just showing people kissing each other, and having a very good time, is enough. But so often their eyes are closed, and you can’t see their faces. The audience is completely shut out. In Hitchcock movies, you can see that they are kissing each other on the neck, and talking. They’re kissing lightly on the lips, and you can see their eyes. You see how they’re reacting. That’s what creates the eroticism of the scene. - Moviemaker (emphasis mine)
Note in the scene below how many times De Palma directs us back at the protagonist's (Jon) reaction.  We get involved as Jon gets involved:

ex. "Sam goes over to the telescope.
Looks through the viewfinder.

SAM: There's one very special feature to this house...

Sam fiddles with the viewer.
Pans to the side --up and down.Finds what he's looking for --

SAM: Come here, Jon. Meet my favorite neighbor.

Jon approaches.
An expression of doubtful bemusement on his face.

JON: Hey, Sam, what're you --

Sam grabs his arm.
Positions him at the telescope.

SAM: Just take a look.

Reluctant, but curious, Jon leans over.
Presses his eye to the lens.                                                                  CUT

INT. SAM'S HOUSE

POV
THROUGH THE TELESCOPE

EXT. FAMILY OF 4 HOUSE

Out of focus:
A family of four at the dinner table.

INT. SAM'S HOUSE

SAM (o.s.): See her?

JON (o.s.): Huh? Just a fmily.

SAM (o.s.): Not them, lower.

Jon pans down.
A jiggly movement.

EXT. GLORIA'S HOUSE

Focuses on the window below the family.
There in the window, a WOMAN.
Standing in the shadows.
A candle on the window sill.
Her face is obscured.
Like an eclipsed sun.
The woman, GLORIA, is drinking wine.
And touching herself.
Slowly, sensually, her breasts.
She puts the wine glass down.
Unbuttons her blouse.
Shrugs it off.
Beneath, she wears a thin silk camisole.
She unhooks her skirt.
It puddles to the floor.
She puts one foot up on a chair.
Touches her leg.
Caresses herself.

INT. SAM'S HOUSE

JON
at the telescope.
Fighting a battle.
And losing.
He cannot tear himself away.
Sam smiles.

SAM: Nice, huh?

And Sam retreats into the bedroom to pack."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The protagonist's reaction to what he sees, i.e., the change in him, is as important for us to see as what he's focused upon.

Body Double (1984)(revised 12/16/83)
by Robert . Averch and Brian De Palma
Story by Brian De Palma

*First, because his scripts are not really my cup of tea.

Second, if you didn't know already, De Palms is quite a divisive filmmaker, who chooses "more controversial terrain: suspense, violence and eroticism." (emphasis mine)

**I like that he says that eroticism, in his words, is "a bit of an illusion."

Monday, August 14, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Blow Out (1981) - Laying Story Pipe

[Quick Summary: After recording the sounds of a car "accident," a movie sound effects guy is hunted for that recording.]

This script surprised me in two ways:

First, the plot is intriguing and fairly...well, normal (though it's De Palma, so not THAT normal).

Second, I was ok that the inciting incident* (the car accident) occurs on p.15.

- So what was happening from p. 1-14?  The writer was laying down what I call "story pipe," which is necessary to setup a situation or a setup a payoff later.**

- What is the "story pipe" that kept me turning pages from 1-14?
p. 1-8: The script opens with a maniac stalking female college students in their dorm.
p. 9-12: We see that p. 1-8 is a film within a film, and our protagonist Jack is working the sound effects.
p. 12-14: On TV, a reporter states that the Governor McRyan will be announcing his candidacy for higher office, maybe tonight.
p. 15: Jack is recording sounds at night, near a creek, and sees McRyan's car swerve off the road into the water.
- Was all that story pipe necessary? In this script, I'd say yes because it sets up why Jack is outdoors at night with a sound recorder.

ex. "Jack nods. Sam starts to pace again.

SAM: And I still don't understand what a smart guy like you is doing this shit for.

JACK: Hey, I do the sound - you do the shit!

SAM (getting mad): No - you do the shit -- like that wind in the trees. Sounds like you're whistling in the crapper.

JACK: It's out of the library. We've used it a million times.

SAM: That's the trouble. I've heard it a million times -- get something new.

Jack nods.

SAM: And what about that scream? We got to dub it.

JACK (innocently): Right. (beat) Know any good screamers?

SAM: I got a few ideas."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't be afraid to lay story pipe. Make sure it isn't backstory.***

Blow Out (1981)(shooting script, dated 10/21/80)
by Brian De Palma

*Inciting incident = Act that kicks off the action

**"Story pipe" is not backstory, which is often unnecessary.

***How will I know the difference? 
a) Experience over a long time.
b) Reading more scripts.
c) From good feedback from other good writers.

Monday, August 7, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Dressed to Kill (1980) - Formatting; A Series of Shots

[Quick Summary: When a woman is murdered by a blonde, the lone witness becomes the blonde's new target.]

YOU: THAT IS NOT "STANDARD" FORMATTING!

ME: Yes, I know.

YOU: Do you care???

ME: Nope.

YOU: Why not?! I don't get it. Everyone is so uppity about formatting.

ME: Because IF the writing shows the story so I can connect the dots...
...and IF I get swept up in the story
...and IF it makes me feel intensely for the characters
...and IF it delivers the punch, the climax, the ending
...then the script works.  I don't notice the formatting.

YOU: So what's the deal with formatting "rules"?*

ME: They are like training wheels. You use them:
- As a fallback.
- When you're unsure what the producers want.
- Until you don't need them as much, i.e., When you're the director and know how to write in a series of cinematic shots.

De Palma is a good example of the last category.

Note below:
- how it is a series of cinematic shots
- how the shots build on each other

ex. "INT. ELEVATOR

When the elevator finally arrives, KATE steps in the car. She hears the sound of footsteps rushing down the hall. She frantically pushes the "close" button. The doors shut before the person coming down the hall can reach her. She is crying openly now and is thankful that no one is in the car to witness her shame. She pushes the lobby button and the car descends. As she pulls her finger off the button she realizes she's left her wedding ring on the bedside table.

KATE: Oh God!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Pay closer attention to how the shots build upon each other, because the sum of those shots is what the audience sees.

Dressed to Kill (1980)
by Brian De Palma

* Remember: On this blog, "rules" = guidelines.  They are not etched in stone.

Monday, July 31, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Obsession (1976) - The Secret is Not the Creepy Parts

[Quick Summary: After his wife and child die in a kidnapping, a Southern real estate investor falls into a deep emotional freeze, until he meets his wife's look alike.]

In the land of "De Palma weird,"* this story is mild, but the twist is creeeeepy.

I thought that I'd be too creeped out to read on...but it's an addictive page turner.

Why? Why is this creepy but good vs. other creepy thriller/horrors just tedious?

I think the secret is NOT THE CREEPY PARTS:

1) The secret is to lay out a character's emotional dilemma that stirs our empathy.

ex.  In this story, Michael Courtland has his wife and child stripped from him, then he descends into hell.  His wound never heals and he is emotionally stuck in 1957.

2) Now the character's RESPONSE to the dilemma can go screwy/creepy/wild.

ex.  Twenty years later, he meets a woman who looks like his dead wife. He drags her to the old places, has her wear the wife's clothes. He's unmoored and doesn't notice.

Do I really need #1? Yes.

Why can't I just do smash a bunch of screwy/creepy/wild scenes together? ** #1 teaches me to care about the characters. A stream of #2 won't hold on the reader.

Note below how the writer:
-  Lay out the dilemma (Mike's emotional vulnerability in his first date with Sandra)
-  Lay out the threat (his spying business partner La Salle)
-  Prepare us for Mike's response later when he finds out

ex. "There is an awkward moment as they say goodnight. Sandra's prepared to accept a goodnight kiss, but Michael is afraid to offer one. Instead, he extends his hand in a shy, awkward way, and she takes it.

COURTLAND: Goodnight, Sandra.

SANDRA: Buona notte, Mike.

They turn and go their separate ways. The CAMERA PANS with Courtland as he walks down the street. Suddenly it STOPS on a man watching from an alley. We ZOOM IN TO DISCOVER it's La Salle."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Take the time to first lay out the character's present emotional state and dilemma, no matter what the genre.  Otherwise, it's forgettable.

Obsession (1976)
by Paul Schrader
Story by Brian De Palma and Paul Schrader

*De Palma scripts are outliers, i.e., they lie outside the normal bell curve of weird.

"De Palma weird" = My attempt to describe this outlying weirdness level.

** This is especially true of what I call "horror porn" scripts where it is scene after scene of gruesome --> more gruesome --> gross out. There is no emotional development, and it becomes tiresome.

Monday, July 24, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Phantom of the Paradise (1974) - Showing Character Through Interactions

[Quick Summary: After a rock opera producer steals his music and his muse, an up-and-coming composer fights back to get everything that was stolen.]

I've read a lot of weird scripts in my day. This one is WEIRD.

Is it Bad Weird or Good Weird?

This is Good Weird, which was worth a second look because it had something worthwhile to say. (BTW, it took me at least 2/3 of the script before I got it.)

Notice how the writer show us what the characters stand for by using interactions:

- Swan (antagonist) is a creepy bastard, as seen by his interactions with the girls.
- Winslow (protagonist) is persistent, as seen by his disguise to meet Swan.

(FYI: If you read the scene below and feel creeped out, it's ok. That's the intent.)

ex. "INT. SWAN'S RECORD-SHAPED BED - NIGHT

Winslow, in drag, but determined to see Swan, lies on a massive water bed surrounded by skimpily clad singers.

GIRL ONE: When do we get to sing?
GIRL TWO: I don't think too much singing goes on here.
GIRL THREE: I've been here 12 times and I don't get to sing -- all I get is to come back.
GIRL FOUR: What do you do here?
GIRL THREE: You'll see.
GIRL FIVE: Can't you sing on your back?
GIRL SIX: I've never tried.
GIRL FIVE: Well, if you can sing standing up, you can sing lying down.
GIRL SEVEN: Why don't you take off your slip?
GIRL EIGHT: I'm waiting for Swan.
GIRL SEVEN: He won't miss anything, if you do it now.
GIRL FIVE: Yeah -- you're being auditioned right now.
GIRL ONE: What do you mean?
GIRL THREE (whispered): The whole place is bugged.
GIRL FOUR: You're kidding.
GIRL THREE: No...no, Swan is watching us right now...

Suddenly Dorian enters the room from his sunken bath. Winslow leaps up, confronting him.

WINSLOW: Mr. Dorian, you remember me. I'm Winslow Leach.
DORIAN: Who let this fag in here?! (yelling to the guards) Get her out of here!

Winslow rips off his wigs.

WINSLOW: Mr. Dorian! It's me, Winslow.

The guards arrive and grab hold of Winslow.

GIRL FOUR: Hurry up, we're cooling off fast.

Dorian turns his back on Winslow and lustfully approaches the bed.

WINSLOW: Don't you remember me? Mr. Philbin gave you the music of my cantata. You're auditioning girls for the chorus. I'm Winslow Leach! I wrote it!

The guards drag Winslow from the room as Dorian slips into the rapidly cooling flesh pile.

DORIAN (to Girl Four): Hand me that telephone."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The reader can tell a lot about your protagonist (and antagonist) by how other characters react to him/her.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)(dated 11/23/74)
by Brian De Palma

Monday, July 17, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Holy Matrimony (1943) - Sight Gag

[Quick Summary: When a famous but shy painter returns to London, he takes on the identify of his recently deceased valet in order to paint in peace.]

DEEE-lightful!  This script is smart, fun, witty, and rapier sharp.

First, I had to applaud the writer* who made me laugh with a 123 word sentence with NO PUNCTUATION.  It even looks funny on the page. Gutsy move.

Second, when I chuckled at this sight gag, I knew I was in good hands:

ex. "Dissolve to:

Montage - Letter

Occupying much of the screen, the envelope is stamped and addressed to PRIAM FARRLL, ESQ. The address itself should be indecipherable. Superimposed on the letter are:

(1) English railway train.

Dissolve to:
(2) Ocean liner.

Dissolve to:
(3) Black native paddling dugout canoe up river.

Dissolve to:
(4) Black native driving primitive oxcart along dirt road.
(5) Black native runner racing through jungle."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Why does this sight gag amuse me? Is it the exaggeration? The sequencing? The economy and clarity of what he's trying to convey? All of it?

Holy Matrimony (1943)
by Nunnally Johnson
Based on the novel, "Buried Alive," by Arnold Bennett

*Nunnally Johnson is no ordinary top notch writer.  Just look at his laudable range in films: Grapes of Wrath, The Three Faces of Eve, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Dirty Dozen, etc.

Monday, July 10, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Julia (1977) - Flashbacks That Nail the WHAT, Not the WHY

[Quick Summary: On a request from her best childhood friend Julia, Lillian Hellman is asked to deliver a package into Nazi occupied Berlin. Based on a true story.*]

My Three Thoughts:

1) My hat is OFF to you, Mr. Alvin Sargent. This is an incredible script.

When was the last time that I didn't want a script to end? I cannot remember.

2) For a tutorial in suspense, do NOT miss the train scene at the end.

3) I like flashbacks, but only if you know how to use them.**

Here, Sargent is extremely precise in how he's using flashbacks: To nail the protagonist's present emotions.  What is Lillian feeling now? (Not WHY, but WHAT.)
 
Notice the FLOW of the next three scenes (I have edited for length):
Scene #1 - Lillian is in shock at the request.  She must decide by tomorrow and doesn't have any guarantees.
Scene #2 - Flashback of Lillian in trouble. Fear --> trust in Julia.
Scene #3 - In the present, Lillian walks in a daze. The flashback shows us the war inside her, i.e., WHAT she's feeling inside now.
ex. EXT. THE GARDENS OF THE TUILERIES - LONG SHOT

[Lillian is in Paris and has not heard from Julia.  Then Johann, a friend of Julia's, shows up with a request: Would Lillian smuggle money to Berlin for Julia?

Lillian asks for time to decide.  Johann walks away.]

Another angle Lillian

walking on the path.

JULIA (O.S. - young girl): Lilly, you don't have to come this way. Go down under. Wade across.

Cut to

EXT. A TRAIL IN THE ADIRONDACK MOUNTAINS - DAY

Angle on a fallen tree which serves as access from one side of a relatively deep ravine to the other. Water rushes down the ravine. Julia and Lillian (children) have approached the tree. They study the pros and cons, Lillian with some trepidation. Finally, Julia moves with great alacrity across the fallen tree. Lillian remains on the edge of the ravine behind her. She is contemplating the depths. Quiite clearly her fear is increasing.

Angle on Julia

on the tree trunk as she reaches the other side. She looks back toward Lillian.

Her P.O.V. Lillian

Standing frozen in the distance.

Full shot

We wait a moment for Lillian to decide. Finally she makes her move. Carefully, she puts one foot on the log....

as Lillian continues on slowly. She moves closer to the other side. Finally, she is only a few yards from making it. She freezes again. We can feel the panic coming on her. She is about to lose her balance and starts to get down to her knees, but she slips off the log. As she does, she throws her arms around it and holds on for dear life. She is hanging beneath the log.

JULIA: Pull yourself up!
LILLIAN: I can't!
JULIA: Hold tight - just hold tight.

[Julia pulls Lillian up on the log. They are safe!]

....Closer shot Lillian and Julia

as they lie on their sides, exhausted.

LILLIAN: I'm sorry.
JULIA: It's all right.

She looks at Lillian like a good teacher, smiles.

JULIA: You'll do it next time.

Cut to

EXT. THE TUILERIES - ANGLE ON LILLIAN

walking on the path. The gardens are breathtaking, but Lillian is oblivious to everything around her, even a line of schoolchildren who nearly bump into her as they move with their teacher along the path."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I didn't notice the flashbacks. (That's how I knew they must have been unusually well crafted.)

Julia (1977)
by Alvin Sargent
Based upon the story by Lillian Hellman

*The forward notes that there is still great debate whether Ms. Hellman's memoirs and recollections are entirely true, or all or partly fictional.

**The "rule" says to not use flashbacks.  Why? Because it's too often used to dump information. That is lazy. Don't do that.

Monday, July 3, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) - Personify the Inner Conflict

[Quick Summary: A tribunal decides the innocence or guilt of four German judges who were on the bench during WWII.]

How do you make a 1948 war crimes trial that lasted 8 months appealing? Relevant?

This script could've been a boring trial, but writer Abby Mann* kept it interesting:

- The story follows Justice Haywood (played by Spenser Tracy) who is a fish-out-of-water. He is very curious, and takes us outside the courtroom into every day life.

- I expected the courtroom scenes that follow the prosecutor, defense attorneys, etc.  However, I did not expect so many character scenes outside the courtroom.

- I really liked how Mann structured the story to show Haywood's inner conflict about judging other judges' innocence or guilt:

1) We see glimpses of the inner conflict, here and there, mixed with humor.**

2) Mann personifies the German point of view through the character of Mrs. Berholt, a German widow with whom Haywood bonds with over music.

She represents the Germans (like her husband) who did not want the Nazis in power, but were swept up in the mess, and falsely accused of crimes and punished.

She makes Haywood face the fact that the issues are not black and white:

"ex. MRS. BERHOLT: What did he know about the crimes they cited him for? (pause) He was placed on trial with the other military leaders. He became part of the revenge which the victors always take on the vanquished...(simply, devastatingly)...it was political murder. (pause. Quietly look at Haywood) You can see that, can't you?

Pause. There is a moment. Haywood speaks finally. Obviously terribly moved by what she has said but not looking at her.

HAYWOOD (finally): Mrs. Bertholt. I don't know. (pause) I don't know what I see. (pause) I shouldn't be here right now talking to you. But I want to understand. I want to understand. I have to.

Mrs. Bertholt looks at him a moment. The stooped, agonized bulk of man sitting on the couch. She realizes how fully he is involved with his case and how much he really wishes to do what is right.

He is giving back to her the memory of the people in America that she had most come to admire. There is a moment.

MRS. BERTHOLT (gently): Would you like some more coffee?

HAYWOOD (quietly): Yes. I would.

Mrs. Bertholt begins to pour."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: One way to show the protagonist's inner conflict is to set him/her against another antagonist/friend/bystander who strongly takes one side in the conflict.

Now the protagonist's inner opinions will be brought out in the open.

Judgment at Nuremburg (1961)
by Abby Mann
Adapted from his 1959 teleplay (play here)(original 1959 video broadcast here)

*FYI: Mann is also the writer who brought the great Kojack (1973) to tv.

**The glimpses were just enough.  I so appreciate that it is not heavy handed conflict, ALL THE TIME.  Otherwise, it would have felt like a lecture.

Monday, June 26, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: My Man Godfrey (1936) - Simple + Complex

[Quick Summary: Godfrey, who lives at the town dump, is whisked away to become the Bullock family's butler.]

Two related thoughts:

1) Writer Taylor Sheridan repeats a 'rule' that I knew but didn't quite grasp:*
Simple story --> Allows room for complex characters, i.e., a character piece.
Complex story --> There's essentially room only for simple characters.
2) I find the above concepts helpful when reading such crazy, off the wall screwball comedies such as My Man Godfrey.  How did they do that?!

The story is indeed SIMPLE.  The writers broke it down into five parts:

1 - Godfrey is hired.
2 - Godfrey is introduced to the highly entertaining, odd family.
3 - Godfrey's secret is exposed.
4 - Godfrey is pseudo-blackmailed and his anonymity is challenged.
5 - Godfrey quits.

Now we have more room for the characters to play in COMPLEX conflicts.

In the scene below, notice:
a) How much fun it is to watch the characters bounce off each other.
b) Complex & complicated = requires a lot of space on the page. 

BULLOCK - father
ANGELICA - mother
CORNELIA- older daughter
IRENE -  younger daughter
CARLO - mother's 'protegee'

ex. "BULLOCK's face shows that he is furious.

BULLOCK: Well, who would know what they're talking about, living with a bunch like this. There is one thing I do know - what this family needs is discipline. I've been a pretty patient man - but when people start riding horses up the front steps and parking them int he library, that's going a little bit too far.

Bullock has crossed to the doorway and addresses himself at this point to Irene.

IRENE: Horses?
ANGELICA (rising): Are you insinuating that I rode a horse up the front steps last night?
BULLOCK: Maybe that wasn't a horse I saw in the library this morning.
ANGELICA (holding the dog, sits down): Well, I'm positive I didn't ride a horse into the library because I didn't have my riding costume on and I hope you're not insinuating that I should ride a horse into the library without my riding costume on.
CORNELIA (now seen in a close-up; seated): It was Irene who rose the horse - up the front steps.
IRENE: What horse?
CORNELIA (again, visible, in a close-up): Don't try to be innocent. I begged you not to do it.

Irene walks angrily over to Cornelia.

IRENE (accusingly): I didn't ride a horse - but if I did ride a horse - Who broke those windows on Fifth Avenue?
CORNELIA: What windows?
IRENE: You know what windows. And how about the college sap? Yah! Yah! Yah!
BULLOCK (going over to them): And I don't care who broke the horse or rode the windows up the steps or who yah-yah-yahed - (seen in a close-up now; excited) - This family has got to settle down!
CARLO: Ooooh!
ANGELICA (out of sight): Will you stop bellowing! (Seen standing; indignantly) Look what you're doing to Carlo.
BULLOCK (furious): Hang Carlo!"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm learning that Simple + Complex is one limitation of writing for film.**

My Man Godfrey (1936)
by Morrie Ryskind & Eric Hatch
Based on the novel by Eric Hatch

*And you know my opinion on "the rules" (here).

**Writing for film is different than other writing.

When writing for things to be SEEN... 
- A complex story with complex characters may/may not be possible to be shot.
- Zooming in and out of a character's internal thoughts may/may not be possible to be seen.

Both the above would be easier to do in a book form vs. film.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Dreams (1990) - The "Rules"; Helpful Example of Suspense

[Quick Summary: A series of 11 short film episodes based on dreams by the director.]

TWO THOUGHTS: (Ok, 1 rant and 1 thought)

1) First, I heard that there were "rules" of screenwriting.

Then I heard that there were no "rules."

Then I noticed screenwriting nitpickers abhor using the word "rules," even though it's a useful term.* 

My opinion?  I think "rules" equals "guidelines." **

Do you need to know the "rules"?  Yes, you need to know them so that you know what you're doing when you break them.

For example, the "rules" say that writing episodic scenes are a no-no...

...Except this script is ELEVEN episodes that are meant to be seen together.

It works here. If it works, it wins.

2) In this script, I liked some of the episodes better than others.

However, the one undeniable thread through all of them is a feeling of SUSPENSE.

It comes from uncertainty and wondering, "What is going to happen next?"

Note how it builds because we cannot predict either characters below:

ex. From the episode "Crying Devils":

"Seeing me, he braces himself as if under attack by a wild animal. "Are you human?" he growls.

Startled, I stop short and nod.

He looks me up and down, as if evaluating, seemingly reluctant to accept my reply as fact.

"Who are you?" I venture.

He glares at me. Then his face gnarls with pain and he crouches.

"What's wrong?" I ask. "Something the matter with you? Are you sick?"

I move closer, but he jumps back like a beast and glares at me again. After a few moments he relaxes and runs a filthy hand through his matted hair, revealing a horn on his head.

Shocked, I jump back. "Are you a devil?"

The man's face contorts again. "Maybe. But I used to be a human being."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When writing suspense, allow room for uncertainty in both the protagonist and antagonist.

Dreams (1990)
by Akira Kurosawa

*TIP: Don't be a nitpicker.

** Thus, the "rules/guidelines" means "possibly helpful, tried and true patterns"  It does NOT mean 'set in stone' or 'applies in every situation.' 

Monday, June 12, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Ran (1985) - Setting Up/ Paying Off the Comeuppance

[Quick Summary: Based on King Lear. The Great Lord Hidetora turns over his empire to his eldest son, and it triggers in-fighting and great destruction.]

I feel bad for Hidetora, but I also don't. 

He obtained his land by violence, and now it's coming back to bite him. Ironic, yes?

My favorite "gotcha" moment is the scene below.

Notice:
1) How the writers innocently set up Hidetora for a big payoff.  I didn't see it coming.
2) How they get us to empathize with the occupant.  This is key to making the comeuppance more emotionally satisfying.

ex. "INT. - STRAW HUT - DUSK

...TANGO: Excuse us for coming in with our shoes on, but our lord was suddenly taken ill... [Setup: Hidetora and company barge into someone's house. So unclassy.]

He steps up on the wooden floor and, together with Kyoami, carries Hidetora over to the hearth and, laying him there, addresses the occupant of the house, seemingly a woman.

TANGO (looks at the occupant): He is wet. Do you have something to cover him with? [More setup: Then they demand help. No 'please'? No manners?]

The occupant stays seated and does not move.

TANGO: Answer me, woman!

OCCUPANT: Are you talking to me?

TANGO: Yes.

The occupant of the house silent rises and goes to a corner of the room. Tango and Kyoami watch the person suspiciously. The occupant, seen from behind in the dim light, appears to be looking for something. [We get why the occupant is reluctant to help these intruders.]

The occupant rises and comes over, silently handing something over. Tango receives it - it is folded clothing. He opens it, puts it on Hidetora, and stares in surprise. It is a beautiful robe with a colorful design, out of keeping with the humble hut. Tango and Kyoami are amazed and curious as they look at it.  [1st surprise/payoff: They are wrong about the robe.]

TANGO: Speak up...woman!

OCCUPANT: I am not a woman. [2nd surprise/payoff: They are wrong about the occupant.]

TANGO: What? It is so dark, I... Bring me a lamp.

Tango reaches for a stick of lighted firewood in order to take a good look at him, and notices a cane leaning by the side of the hearth.

TANGO: I am sorry. Is your eyesight poor?

He holds up the stick of firewood. The occupant of the house is illuminated in the light from the burning stick. It is the face of a blind but handsome youth. Kyoami pulls back with a start and looks at Tango. [3rd surprise/payoff: They're wrong about his disability.]

TANGO (shocked, gazes at the youth): Are you Lade Sue's younger brother...Master Tsurumaru?

TSURUMARU: Yes.

Hidetora sits up, turns his eyes, and stares at the youth. Then, his voice trembling, he mutters with a frightened voice.

HIDETORA: Tsu...Tsurumaru?

TSURUMARU: It has been a long time...Lord Hidetora.

HIDETORA: Do you remember me?

TSURUMARU: How could I forget you? I was just a child, but how could I forget the one who gouged out my eyes in exchange for sparing my life...the day you burned down my father's castle?" [4th surprise/payoff: They've dug themselves a deep well. We see why Hidetora should be ashamed and feel justified at his current comeuppance.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When there's a good setup and payoff, we see why the comeuppance is justified...and it feels so cathartic!

Ran (1985)
by Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni & Masato Ide
Based on "King Lear" by William Shakespeare
Translated by Tadashi Shishido

Monday, June 5, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: Kagemusha (1980) - What is the Premise/ Central Story Question/ Promise?

[Quick Summary: A thief who resembles a samurai warlord is drafted into becoming his body double during a time of war.]

BAD NEWS: I find Kurosawa scripts to be very dense.

Also, I have difficulty seeing on the page what he saw in his head.

GOOD NEWS: I never have trouble locating the premise/central story question/promise that he makes with the audience. 

Why? Because there is defined unity, i.e., everything points to the central question.

In the example below, the warlord Shingen gives an urgent speech from his sick bed. No one knows that it will also be his death bed.

Notice how the writers use the speech to instruct the men and to lay out the stakes:

ex. "*A ROOM IN THE TEMPLE

Arm rest on bedding. Shingen, with white bandage on chest, sits and leans on the arm rest. From his posture and expression, it can be seen that his condition is far from good.  [The big man is ill while at war with other warlords. What will happen?]

Darkened expressions on faces of Katsuyori, Baba, Yamagata, Kosaka, Oyamada and others surrounding Shingen. [Reaction of gloomy followers.]

SHINGEN: It is regrettable. I guess I will not see the Takeda flag fly in the capital.

KATSUYORI (impatiently): Father, what are you saying...

SHINGEN: Don't get excited. It has been my lifelong dream to place the Takeda flag in the capital. But, if I should die now, do not dwell on this dream of mine. If it is known that I've departed, Oda, Tokugawa and other enemies will rush into our domain. Do not reveal my demise for three years and guard the domain well. Do not make a false move. If my orders are not observed an you move our soldiers in vain, it will mean the end of the Takeda clan. Listen well, all. This is my last will. [This is the promise of the film: Why do our heroes go to extremes to create and protect a false double of Shingen? To protect the clan. To carry out his dying wishes. The rest of the film will answer: Do they succeed?]

Nobody speaks. Shingen, with extreme exhaustion and changed face, laughs deliriously and with bright eyes.

SHINGEN: This Shingen is not dead yet. I've spoken as I did because of the one in the a million chance that I should go. No, I won't die.

But these words give an impression of impending death to all present. Heavy air sets in."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Keep the premise/ central story question/promise clear in the story.

If you wander from it, you will have confusion and lack unity.

Kagemusha (1980)
by Akira Kurosawa & Masato Ide
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