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