Monday, November 27, 2017

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Constant Gardener (2005) - Adaption: Intent or Content?

[Quick Summary: After his activist wife is killed mysteriously in Nairobi, a mid-level British official finds answers in governmental and corporate treachery.]

It's rare that an author loves his book's adaption. Here, Le Carre does:
Why was this one so good? Why do I keep watching it and feel none of the usual alienation? p. v.
Ah, isn't that the million dollar question? We all know films that are absolutely true to the book...and deadly boring. So what makes a good adaption?

Screenwriter @HIGHzurrer has offered these wise words on adaptions:
For me it boils down to how a story makes me feel. Recapturing that feeling goes a long way to honoring the source material. Literature can give you the EXACT motivations, clear as day, without the character acting or speaking. Impossible visually. I feel like you either have to capture the intent or the content. But not both. (emphasis mine)
Let's look at today's script and the choices that were made.

In the novel, Tessa dies on p. 1.  In the script, she dies around p. 40.

Then from p. 1-40, we're shown:
- Tessa and Justin's marriage dynamics (she's outgoing, he's reserved)
- how they interact with their peers, people in need
- how Tessa charmed others to help her help others in need
- who is powerful, who isn't, etc.

As a result:
- I believed in Tessa and Justin's love story. 
- I believed Justin, this mild mannered, reserved fellow, would pursue her killer to the ends of the earth.

As an audience member, I did not have access to Justin's internal thoughts (as in a novel). I needed to see the couple interacting for their connection to be "real" to me.

The scene below takes place early in the script.  At first, I thought he was suspicious.  On a second read, I saw that he is trying to protect her by deleting the email.

An interesting insight into their relationship, no?


...Justin clicks on the message. The sender isn't identified, but the message originates from the High Commission's communal e-ail address.

It reads: "What were you and Arnold Bluhm doing in the Nairobi Hilton Sunday night? Does Justin know?"

Justin stares at it a moment, then deletes the message as Tessa enters from the bathroom, still in her underwear.

TESSA (cont'd): What was it?


TESSA: The e-mail.

JUSTIN: Oh...junk. Some ad.


JUSTIN: The Nairobi Hilton.

He waits for a response. There isn't one.

JUSTIN (cont'd): Weekend package deal. Two nights for the price of one.

She indicates her pregnant abdomen.

TESSA: Two guests for the price of one.

...and exits to the landing.

Justin closes his screen, no longer in the mood to write. On Tessa's Desktop we now see a variety of folders, among them: "HOUSEHOLD"; "KIBERA"; "AFRICAN WOMEN'S FOUNDATION"; "HAM"; "ARNOLD'S LINKS"; "GRACE MAKANGA".

A moment, then Justin clicks on "ARNOLD'S LINKS". Receives the prompt: "ENTER PASSWORD". He tries to access "KIBERA". Same result. He stands and leaves the room."

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes the best that a film can do is capture the "feel" of a book.*

The Constant Gardener (2005)(dated 3/8/04)
by Jeffrey Caine
Based on the novel by John Le Carre

*I used to believe that deviating from the book was a bad thing.  I had no idea what "film is a different medium" meant.

Now I understand that it's often necessary. Books can do things that film cannot. Books can explain thoughts and motivations, but films cannot explain, only show.

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:


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 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:

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

- 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.

- 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.


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


...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
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