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.