June 10, 2010

WHY THE HURT LOCKER ISN'T A MASTERPIECE

My recent analysis of The Hurt Locker sequence by sequence shows that it holds up as a decently structured non-goal-oriented movie.

I was going to write a big essay about why it's not a masterpiece but not many people seemed to want to read it. ;-) And I am in the middle of preproduction myself, so I am going to pick my battles.  And, after my ScripShadow interview, people accused me of being too analytical.  So I will be breezier and leave you with some homework.  Excuse the first-draft nature of some of this...

My recent off-the-cuff post on Done Deal inspired me to quickly throw up this blog.  Pun intended.  Here is part of the post:

In brief.....around the tenth or eleventh sequence when the film should have shown a surprising and new revelation about what it all means, they regress (in the scene where his friend gets hurt) to "he's risk-taking and that's dangerous," which is like a page-30 revelation, not a page-100 revelation. Part of the problem is bad character orchestration. The other characters weren't defined strongly enough to challenge him. If they could have made a stronger and more specific argument to him not to chase down the bad guys on his own, they could have called him on his behavior and helped us see it for what it really was.

Some unfinished thoughts from my original THL piece:

I actually have a bigger issue with sequence 10 that culminates with Eldridge being shot. It feel it’s actually a bit of a non-sequitur in the scope of carefully linked sequences. His argument for going is generic and unclear as to the deeper meaning. He says that there are bad guys out there and they are “laughing at us.” Sanborn’s strongest rebuttal is “It’s not our job.” And Eldridge conflicts with him after-the –fact: with “fuck you… adrenaline junkie.”



I feel like the clash of ideas is a regression. This conflict was the sort that was playing out on page 40. He likes ACTION. Been there done that. Is it risky? Sure. If their response showed that they picked up some other motive, it would allow for deeper insight. Now whether or not you agree with me on this, stick with me for a second for two reasons.


First of all, if you write a nongoal-oriented movie, this is exactly the scrutiny under which you must put your scene and sequences. You are not going to evaluate it by the linear cause-and-effect of a Hollywood Blockbuster. You have to be finely attuned to the inner life of the characters in the scene. A major turning point in a nongoal-oriented story I have is that a character realizes a relationship has reached the love stage because her lover reads the newspaper in the other room. The next scene she is drunk at a party. No story software is going to tell you that the next scene must be at a party. But in these sorts of stories require you to track something else: Being open to "love scares her" so now she "must anesthetize."


That’s why this form of storytelling is hard. In an action movie, you might have a concrete task at hand. My character has to get across that guarded bridge. But in these sorts of stories, you have to create a scene that mirrors your characters’ inner life from absolute thin air. And the scene might be a really good scene but it’s trickier to measure its effectiveness. (And it’s trickier for execs to “get” it.)

REGARDING THE MOMENT before they go into the night and chase after the bad guys on their own:Let's look at the subtle craft that might allow us to dig deeper here and find out what is really driving James. As I mentioned Eldridge and Sanborn’s responses are a bit generic. I do believe that James line or tack could be tweaked. However, ironically, the actual clarification of his intent would come from the follow up line that conflicts with his argument. A character in the scene would have to be orchestrated in such a way that he is able to sense or understand the unconscious motivation and then shed light on it for us in his response. Consider the possible subtle motivations driving him here and a reaction that might pinpoint it for us.


• Like an addict, James is lying/rationalizing to get his “action fix – “You’re making shit up” or “That makes no sense”


• James can’t stand losing to the “bad guys” -- “It’s not a fucking game” or “There is no winning.”


• If he wants to compensate for the suffering of the people at the site -- “You can’t save them.” or “You can’t be a hero.”

The lesson here is that if you really want to mine the complexity of a main character, you have to orchestrate the other characters in a way that allows them to be strong enought, smart enough and opposed to their POV diamaterically enough so that their conflict can add insight.  Think of the specificity of the priest's insight into the main character in Million Dollar Baby.

For instance, by making the Psychiatrist a buffoon whose purpose was limited to showing a slightly cliched perspective: someone who doesn't understand the "reality" of  the situation, they lost an opportunity to explore the main character. Seriously, it's possible that 12.5 mf of Adderall twice a day solves 95% of this character's problems. I know it's a much less sexy title: The ADHD Locker, but if you want to write a masterpiece you have to go deeper than that.

My first draft of ideas to spur thought:

I think this film fulfills its promise as an action film and I am surprised that word-of-mouth didn’t generate more box office. There are several stunning action sequences of 10+ minute. But the truth is if a film spends a lot of time blowing things up, it has less time to explore characters and relationships.

With more time, could the film narrowed down who this character might be? What he is, what he’s not? I love the technique and the visuals in the “at home” scenes in the final sequence, but it is a little bit too dismissive about the possibilities of really understanding him. He hates shopping with his wife. Does he hate sleeping with her? He gets bored playing with his kid? Would 7.5 grams of Adderall twice a day cure that? Is he addicted to defusing bombs or does he have an acute case of undiagnosed ADHD? Would a less-caricatured version of Cambridge have been able to shed any legitimate insight into James?

As a 125-minute movie with, give or take, 12 longish sequences, it has the same amount of twists and turns as an 88-minute romantic comedy or 90-minute indie drama. Can it explore all of the necessary permutations of an idea or of a character in that many steps? If so, it has to be done with perfect efficiency? When I dig deeper into a few key moments (I gave this up, moviemaking trumps movie analysis) into the film, if there is a wasted sequence, a redundant beat or even a missed opportunity to escalate further an idea, then that’s a big deal.

Also, I am not sure I like the triumphant marching music at the end as he marches down the street and we are supposed to celebrate this as his fate. On the commentary, Bigelow argued that the last few images were from his POV...that's how he felt about it. But I am not sure that ending on that irony or POV was earned. You tell your child that you can't love it and then the final statement is: Woo Hoo, I am back to defusing bombs. The movie could have been stronger than the character.

I am being hard on this film because my expectations are high and so are the expectations of these filmmakers. The Hurt Locker is a very good film and possibly a great one. I hope that my illustration of some of this film’s inner works helps your writing. Remember, to write a script that’s very good, you have to aim for great.

Although the direction was less flashy (appropriately so) and perhaps with less overall craft, Frozen River was a masterpiece at the script level: it explored its ideas more fully... took them all of the way with more coherency.
Will have a film for you to enjoy or rip apart soon!

April 1, 2010

TOP 50 US BOX OFFICE

In my Avatar article in the recent issue of Craft & Career, I promised a blog about why mimicking blockbusters isn't really a solid screenwriting strategy. I touched on the idea that there are things you can learn about storytelling from the filmmakers of the top grossing films of all time. Of the top 50 or so of the top US Box Office films, the only spec scripts were The Sixth Sense and The Hangover. If anything, those two movies are something to model a spec after: modest budget, clever concept (The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge Twist, and using the mystery/detective genre).


Well, I let Kathryn Cottam --my right hand researcher -- do some investigating to see if I am right.....

... and here they are in all their glory. So let’s look at the top 50 film U.S. Box Office films to see how many of them are either original concepts or written by first time screenwriters.

From Kathryn:

 • The first Star Wars film was definitely original, but five positions in the top 50 are held by the subsequent films of the franchise.


• The Spiderman Trilogy holds three positions. It is also a pre-existing intellectual property that debuted in 1962 and has a built in following.


• The Pirates of Caribbean Franchise holds two positions and is based on a theme park ride that opened in 1967 and is owned by Disney.


• The Shrek Franchise sits in two spots and is based upon an existing property that first appeared in 1990.


• The Transformers Franchise occupies two positions and is based on a line of toys.

• Lord of the Rings holds three positions. These are adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels which have sold over 150,000,000 copies worldwide since publication.

• Harry Potter holds four positions and the series by J.K. Rowling has sold over 400,000,000 copies since publication.


So barring the first Star Wars film, all of these 22 films are based on preexisting properties -- books, toys or a ride. So 7 entities or concepts account for over half of the list (22 of the 40 positions).


Of the remaining 18 properties on the top 50 U.S. Box Office:

 • Five are based on bestsellers or literary properties:
- Forrest Gump (Bestseller)
- Chronicles of Narnia (Bestseller)
- Jurassic Park (Bestseller)
- Dark Night (Graphic Novel)
- Iron Man (Graphic Novel)
- ... and if we throw in the Lion King - based on Hamlet and Passion of the Christ - the Bible -- then that number increases to 7.

• Three of these places are occupied by sequels of pre-vious movies:
- Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
- Meet the Fockers (Meet the Parents)
- The Matrix Reloaded (The Matrix)

• Two of these positions are occupied by films from the the incredible Pixar Machine which develops its own properties:
- Up
- Finding Nemo

Which leaves us with the following: Titanic, E.T., Independence Day, Sixth Sense, Home Alone and the Hangover.

In other words of the 40 ... only 6 are ideas NOT based on a pre-existing property. But let’s look at these closer.

The Titanic certainly wasn’t Cameron’s first film; he has a most impressive resume, working in Hollywood since the early eighties, writing and directing several franchise properties (Terminator, Rambo, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies).

E.T. was created by the powerhouse, Steven Spielberg. Home Alone was by John Hughes (what didn’t he write in the 80s?) and Independence Day -- Dean Devlin had previously had a hit with the blockbuster, Stargate.

Each and every one of these writers, directors or producers is certainly no Hollywood novice.

So it appears that only the Sixth Sense and the Hangover are Spec Scripts ... 2 of 40.

BUT the Hangover is the only ORIGINAL property to make the top 40 in the past 10 years ... since 1999 when the Sixth Sense emerged. And The Hangover was sold as a Spec Script with the Director and BenderSpink already in place. And M. Night Shyamalan had written Wide Awake, Praying with Anger and Stuart Little.

So who are the screenwriters that appear on the top 50?

Well we have:

• Steve Kloves in 3 positions
• David Koepp in 3 positions
• Fran Walk, Peter Jackson & Phillipa Boyens in 3 posi-tions
• Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot in 3 positions
• Andrew Adamson in 3 positions and ...
• George Lucas in a whopping 6 positions.

Which means that 6 screenwriters or their screenwriting partnerships occupy a whopping 21 positions on the U.S Top 50 Box Office -- again over half the list.

Who are some first time screenwriters who made it NOT on the top 50 list, but the top 500 list?

Well, My Big Fat Greek Wedding written by Nia Vardalos comes in at #52 (which is pretty damn good - although it IS based on a pre-existing property, a one woman play). There is also Blair Witch at spot #212 written by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez and Se7en written by Andrew Kevin Walker at #433.

Like Jim mentioned with The Hangover and Sixth Sense, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Blair Witch and Se7en were clever concepts with modest budgets, strong hooks that captured attention and became audience favorites.

February 28, 2010

SCENE AND DIALOGUE ANALYSIS FOR A READER OF CRAFT & CAREER

Jim Evert, a reader of A-List's newsletter's Craft & Career responded to an offer I made a few issues back to submit scenes to be critiqued on the blog. These comments will serve two purposes.

In purple text, I have made some general notes on the scene. (Normally, I would deliver these notes verbally and a dialogue between myself and the writer would ensue. But nonetheless I hope they are helpful as monologue.) And near the end of the short sequence, I make notes in red that focus only on the dialogue and are a follow up to the craft article found in the most recent Craft & Career Newsletter.

Jim is new to screenwriting, so many of these issues are expected. So I applaud him for having the courage to let me nitpick these first draft pages. Jim and I are going to discuss the scene afterwards privately and hopefully in a few weeks he will submit a rewrite based on our discussions, something we can all use as a learning tool.

Forgive the janky format. If anyone knows how to format script pages in Blogger, please contact me.


THE RED WIRE
by
Jim Evert

THE OPENING

FADE IN:

EXT. PENDRIUS BUILDING - PRESENT DAY, MORNING

The old PENDRIUS BUILDING is an aging hulk in the midst of modern architectural marvels. Three NYPD cars with FLASHING LIGHTS are carelessly parked outside the building.

I don't love the idea of opening on a building. It’s a static image and doesn’t seem to have any meaning in the story. Is "Present day" necessary? Would this not be evident in the visuals? Does "carelessly" imply that the cops sped to the scene, parked and rushed into the building? If so, that might be a different word. Also, what city are we in? I know you have NYPD on the cars but if I miss that, will I know where we are? If this were the Empire State Building or the Guggenheim, I might give you credit for setting up the location efficiently but you are missing opportunity to show us this world.

INT. PENDRIUS BUILDING

Various Pendrius employees are being interviewed by NYPD. DETECTIVE MIKAEL STRONG, 43, is a ruggedly handsome, middle-aged, greying, ex-marathon runner. A veteran cop with 23 years on the force, he's wearing the same suit he bought when he promoted to detective, 12 years ago.

I don't want this to be about language and proofreading, but there are some definite issues where the language is hurting the craft. A first page has to draw you in. I have to see something interesting and I have to know what I am seeing. The icky passive voice...employees are being interviewed.... has to go. What does that look like? I don't even know what I am seeing. It also reads like a laundry list: there are employees and one detective and another detective (with long and unknowable description (a cheat); how do you plan to show that he is an ex-marathon runner visually?)

Now, no more nitpicking language. Let's talk big picture creative stuff. We want an introduction to this world. And we want an intro to these characters. Think of Se7en --a character in his order montage. Lethal Weapon -- Riggs is doing his crazy thing on the job. Chinatown--an angry husband is getting bad news and pictures of his cheating wife. Get to the essence of your characters. Ruggedly handsome is cliche and doesn't reveal anything. Ex-Marathon runner - we can't know that now. And don't really need to. He's a veteran... okay... how is that going to play out? Are we going to see him act like a veteran? Same suit as when promoted....I guess that means I am seeing a guy in ratty clothes.

Later on, I am going to come back to what I know about him.

CHIEF OF POLICE FRANK MCDONALD, 54, is older and slightly taller than STRONG. His rugged complexion reflects a hard life in the Bronkx, but his uniform looks like it just came off a Macy's mannequin. Strong stands talking with Chief McDonald in the entrance foyer of the Pendrius Building.

I like the contrast in the two characters. Honestly, right now the fact that one of them wears an old suit and one of them wears a meticulous (and starched?) uniform is the most vivid description I have seen and maybe all I need at this point.

This why sometimes I have five pages of notes on the screenwriter's first two pages. ;-) I am not invoking some arcane law about character introduction but there are some bad habits here that I want the writer to shed. This principle is true for all aspects of "beginnings" in storytelling: When you open a movie, when you introduce a new location, when you introduce a character and when that character meets new character(s). You have to think 'filmically' and introduce us to the moment in linear way: one piece of information at a time. I see so many scripts where there are four characters introduced in a row--each with two sentences of description. How can a reader take all of that in? A viewer might be able to but they are still going to be confused and short-changed on some aspect of one of the characters.

Look at how Peter Weir deals with a simple situation like this in Dead Poet's Society. Knox is going to the Danbury's house. Surprise, the young pretty daughter opens the door (hey, you're not Mrs. Danbury.) Then the mother comes and literally replaces her in the doorway... (oh, look, the nice proper but friendly mother). Then when he comes in, the DAD walks in the room… Except for the daughter, these are all minor characters, but for the audience to process it, they have to be led into the moment step by step. The same principle applies to your opening shot (NYC, Tone of Film, building that belongs to who, cops, investigating what....) and the introduction to your characters. You don't put Murtaugh and Riggs in the same frame on page 1. There is too much cool stuff you want to learn about them and it's too difficult to absorb it when they are simultaneously competing for the viewer or reader’s attention.

MCDONALD
The ME think it's a simple case of old-age catching up, but something's rotten about it.

STRONG
What's that, boss?

MCDONALD
He didn't seem that close to death when I played golf with him last Saturday.

STRONG
You've already talked to his family?

MCDONALD
Yeah. I convinced them to do an autopsy.

STRONG
Alright, boss. I'll keep you posted.

See Strong's three lines. You have a character named Strong. He's a main character and you have decided to introduce him in a scene where he is only acting in his by-rote function as a cop and subordinate. He listens to his boss and asks flat/exposititory questions. No actor in the world would get past this page. Why would they even want to think about playing that character?

I sound like I am being tough. But here's the good news. This page TELLS us and the writer about these characters. Now scrap it and think of a scene that SHOWS their essence and allows them to be themselves quicker. The bad news (not so bad) is that you have to spend 5-10 minutes to rethink this and then an hour writing. But you will have a much more dynamic scene and a setup that will get you much further. And best of all? You will have characters that are more intriguing.

Let's read ahead a few paragraphs and see what we learn about them and then I will use that to brainstorm some solutions. Unless Strong's character arc is to go from wet noodle subordinate to something else, then we gotta get him more active and present.

The Chief's cell phone rings - he pulls it out of his jacket pocket, looks at the caller ID, rolls his eyes, holds his left index finger up in a "wait a minute" gesture to Strong, then answers it.

MCDONALD
Yes, Margaret...can it wait a few min...yes dear, I will, goodbye.

He closes his cell phone but keeps it in his hand. He takes a step closer to Strong, then points it at him like an extra appendage.

MCDONALD
(quietly)
And no visits to O'Callahans's in between, right?

STRONG
I told you before, Chief, I've been sober for fourth months.

A much more naturalistic response would be to flip him the bird, to say FU or to ask him what he wants from the bar. Unless Strong is supposed to be a weak by-the-book character who stays in line and overly respects authority, a straight informative answer like this is not drama. It's not even necessary. If anything have him ignore it. That would be the stronger choice.

Okay, big picture. First, I am not even sure I like McDonald bringing up the drinking unless there is something in the scene that makes him worry about it. And Strong here has no presence at all. Essentially, both men have a generic conversation about the crime – although I'm not even sure what the crime is, let alone how it's related to these employees or this building.. I want a scene where these guys do what they do. Who are these cops – besides cops? If Strong wears a ratty suit does that mean Strong is irreverent? And I guess McDonald is by the book? Perhaps, but they certainly aren't acting that way.

One try: Maybe it's middle of the night... a much better setting for a crime/mystery film. McDonald starts the scene wandering around asking for Strong, and has anyone seen him? As he does this, he walks by all of the boring aspects of the interview/investigation that we don't really care about. But it's a funny bit and it's on point. He is the boss and he wants to make sure his underling is here. Then maybe Strong comes in at the last minute in sweat pants/running pants...... MCD goes and tries to smell his breath. Strong give him a "give me an f-n break look" and MCD says he looks like shit. Strong says he couldn't sleep and went for a run. Later, he can gripe about his knee. (He looks haphazard and disrespectful (characterization) but he came here when it wasn't his shift (character)).

It's hard to settle into a movie when people I don't even know yet are talking about other people I don't even know yet. So it might be worth dragging the audience in through Strong's POV. Maybe he doesn't know what's going on or SURPRISE -- he recognizes the dead body as his friend. His disorientation would cause him to DIG for answers and McDonald dismisses his curiosity because he knows Strong would have known the answers if he had arrived on time. (Even crime scene scenes aren’t about the scene. They are about the characters.) This is a first draft idea but get some conflict in there. Get some character in there. Let these people be who they are going to be. If you can't find a way for them to be more than just their role/job here, then don't start the movie here.

None of my specific suggestions are brilliant or even inspired but they are pointing you in the direction you should be moving. When I talk to Jim, I am going to ask him about the essence of these guys and once we nail that, I will push him to find a scene or situation that allows them to be – and reveal -- more of THEMSELVES.

MCDONALD
Yeah, like THAT'S gonna last!

The Chief turns and walks away. Strong mutters to himself

STRONG
Asshole!

PENDRIUS' INNER OFFICE - A FEW MINUTES LATER

I am not going to nitpick this scene. But this scene has a similar problem. The main characters are acting like "any old" cops. Their personality, style and essence aren't on display. Strong asks generic questions that only represent the mundane goal of getting information. This is clunky exposition.

But here's the trick to improving it. . This problem is not really a scene-writing issue. It's a character and structure issue. The writer needs to think about what's urgent here. How do these characters conflict? What is at stake that is bigger than the investigation? If you answer those questions, THEN and ONLY THEN do you arrive at a place where you can start thinking about how this scene might play out.

DETECTIVE BOBBY GONZALEZ, 38, although not new to police work, was promoted to detective only two years ago. His dark complexion and athletic figure immediately makes one think of an Aztec warrior. When Strong walks in, Gonzalez is standing to one side of the crime scene, taking notes on a WORN NOTE PAD.

STRONG
What do you have, Bobby?

GONZALEZ
Raphael Pendrius, owner of the firm. Secretary found him this morning collapsed at his desk.

STRONG
Anything unusual?

GONZALEZ
Nah, just the phone off the hook.

Strong walks around to the back of the desk. Massive oak, old, sparsely adorned. A rather worn MANILA FILE FOLDER is centered on the large ink blotter; the name "BELLE" neatly printed at the top. Strong picks it up and opens it. Starts reading, pauses and looks at his partner.

STRONG
What do you think, Bobby?

Strong continues thumbing through the file.

GONZALEZ
Gut feeling? Pendrius died of old age.

STRONG
You check out the secretary?

Strong looks up from the file. Gonzalez reads from his NOTE PAD.

GONZALEZ
Mary Zowkowicz. Been with the firm since day-one.
Never missed a day of work.

STRONG
What about her colleagues?

GONZALEZ
Only two other secretaries worked on this floor, but never had
any dealings with Pendrius directly.

STRONG
So, Ms. Z had tight control of the office reigns, did she?

GONZALEZ
What it looks like.
Something else, though...

STRONG
What?

GONZALEZ
The other two secretaries thought the two had a more private relationship...

Gonzalez turns slightly and looks in her direction.

GONZALEZ
From the way she's carrying on, they probably were.

Strong walks to the window, still looking at the file. After a few moments, he jerks back around to look at Gonzalez, pointing at the folder.

STRONG
Hey, I remember this case! This was the nut with the phones.

GONZALEZ
You lost me, Mikael.
Strong holds up the folder and points to the name.

STRONG
Belle.
He was accused of murder 12 years ago. Unusual circumstances.
They ended up throwing it out on a technicality.

GONZALEZ
So what does that have to do with us?

STRONG
Don't know...nothing, probably.

GONZALEZ
Well, I'm going to interview the night guy. Later, Mikey.

Gonzalez turns and starts to leave the room. Strong turns towards him.

STRONG
It's Mikael, Bobby, not Mikey! Damn, you know how I hate that!

GONZALEZ
(still walking, grinning)
Got it, Mikey!

PENDRIUS'S OUTER OFFICE

Strong shakes his head as he walks from the inner to the outer office. His cell phone rings...

STRONG
Strong...yeah, just got here a few minutes ago. So what's up?...Uh huh...Uh huh...TOD was between 11 p.m. and midnight?...

He pulls out a NOTE PAD and starts writing.

MAYORS OFFICE - AT THE SAME TIME

The office is furnished with a massive OAK DESK, a dark, leather-covered DESK CHAIR, and a pair of matched, OVERSTUFFED LOUNGERS in front of the desk. MAYOR TERRY ACADIAN, 58, almost as wide as he is tall, with a badly aging cutesy-pie face, and Police Chief McDonald, are sitting opposite each other in a deep in discussion. Each has an identical-looking folder in front of them.

Why the same time? This is confusing. McD was at the crime scene a few minutes ago.

In a second, I am going to just focus on the dialogue for this rest of the scene. But first I want to finish up with my notes. Ironically, some of the problems with these scenes are more about the structure. If the Prendrius case is what the movie is really about, then I feel like we should know the characters BEFORE the inciting incident takes place (if that’s what the death is?). The same issue with the mayor. Instead of seeing Strong’s actions and how they impact people, we are being told about it. MAYBE this opening needs to back up 10-20 pages to where Strong actually messed up. It’s not dramatic to see the mayor talk about something that happened a long time ago. Drama is conflict in the present. Now, I know that this next scene has some conflict for McD and the Mayor. But the question is why now? I feel like we would want to see the status quo before we start seeing relationships conflict. Some of my assumptions may be wrong about this opening and I will share my mistakes in a follow-up blog after Jim and I talk.

I might argue that the next scene doesn’t even belong at this point in the script, but I am going to assume it does and focus on the dialogue (mostly) as a complement to the article in Craft & Career.

In order to illustrate some points, I have to make some assumptions, try a few what-ifs and follow a few tangents. Maybe the original is better in some ways and maybe sometimes I am imposing something inappropriate on it. I think one of my greatest gifts as a teacher is to help a writer improve upon WHAT HE IS TRYING TO SAY by listening to his or her responses to my suggestions. But, sometimes, in a one-way monologue like this, I will inadvertently go too far in the wrong direction. Nonetheless I think this exploration can be a learning tool.

Here is the scene without any notes or comments.

The office is furnished with a massive OAK DESK, a dark, leather-covered DESK CHAIR, and a pair of matched, OVERSTUFFED LOUNGERS in front of the desk. MAYOR TERRY ACADIAN, 58, almost as wide as he is tall, with a badly aging cutesy-pie face, and Police Chief McDonald, are sitting opposite each other in a deep in discussion. Each has an identical-looking folder in front of them.

MCDONALD
Mayor, we've already talked about this...

ACADIAN
You've gotta cut Strong loose, Chief.

MCDONALD
NOT a good idea. He's one of my best detectives...

ACADIAN
...with a drinking problem.

MCDONALD
Not anymore. He's been clean for four months.

The Mayor squirms in his chair.

ACADIAN
It's not entirely my idea, Frank. The Board of Supervisors had a meeting...

MCDONALD
And...

McDonald leans forward - the Mayor pulls back, a little intimidated.

ACADIAN
He's run out of second chances, Frank.

MCDONALD
He's had a few bumps in the road, but nothing THAT serious...let's not do this, Terry.

The Mayor sits back as if contemplating the situation, then

ACADIAN
Alright, Frank. You've got two weeks. He screws up, he's done, got it?

The Chief sits back in his chair.

Now, let’s break it down.

The office is furnished with a massive OAK DESK, a dark, leather-covered DESK CHAIR, and a pair of matched, OVERSTUFFED LOUNGERS in front of the desk. MAYOR TERRY ACADIAN, 58, almost as wide as he is tall, with a badly aging cutesy-pie face, and Police Chief McDonald, are sitting opposite each other in a deep in discussion. Each has an identical-looking folder in front of them.

The first thing I would say is, “Forget his cutesy-pie face (what does that mean?), give me one adjective – preferably one that sums him up the best — about the mayor to work with. Maybe the adjective is in the action description, but more importantly, we need to get a handle on him.

Line by line:

MCDONALD
Mayor, we've already talked about this...

I like that the scene is starting in media res. Good efficiency. I get of McD. He is a tough cop who picked on his subordinate for being a drinker but has enough loyalty or honor to defend him here. But brevity challenge: could you cut the first line and start with the mayor’s line:

ACADIAN
You've gotta cut Strong loose, Chief.

But like the cops earlier, the Mayor is just fulfilling his role as politician: trying to get rid of a troubled employee. This isn’t special. This isn’t specific.  Maybe it's passable to start here, but it's not okay to stay.

I guess the beat is: pushing, persuading. Don’t know why it’s important yet. McDonald’s reply is to refute, to argue. But notice that his second line implies the first. So cut the on-the-nose part and only keep the line that captures it.

MCDONALD
NOT a good idea. He's one of my best detectives --

ACADIAN
-- with a drinking problem.

I like the fact that he interrupts him. Nice flow. Problem is that it’s information the audience and both of these characters already know. So really there is no need to say this and you should be able to cut it. Instead, maybe just have Acadian do a disapproving gesture like shaking his head and let McDonald know he has to escalate his argument:

MCDONALD
Not anymore. He's been clean for four months.

Notice once again, this phenomenon of a double line. A line that expresses the subtext explicitly. And then ALSO a line that captures the subtext implicitly. You don’t need both. A more extreme example from some imaginary script would be: “What the fuck were you thinking? That was sort of stupid.” Do you need both sentences? No. And which is better? More emotional? More fun? ;-)

The Mayor squirms in his chair.

ACADIAN
It's not entirely my idea, Frank. The Board of Supervisors had a meeting...

It’s sort of strange to try to do this nonlinear creative process in a linear fashion, so cross your fingers…

This is the EUREKA moment for me where the mayor finally REVEALS himself. This first draft of the scene has led us to gold, albeit half-way in. The mayor to appeals to what other people (board of directors) want. Although he is the boss, he permits the peer pressure from some nameless board to get in his way. (It’s also possible that this reveals something slightly different: he is weak and, whether the board really agrees with him or not, he wants to use it to avoid responsibility.)

(Note on ADVANCED CRAFT. If you preceded the line with a small indication that McD was relenting and was sort of stuck with the mayor’s decision, then the mayor’s saying of this line is actually an even more telling ACTION. Because he offers it up without solicitation. It’s like a tell in a poker game. If he says the line at a point where McD had stopped fighting, then it’s overcompensating. It becomes evidence that he is not comfortable using his sole authority. He either wants to shed responsibility or make McD make the choice to fire him. Some of this is here as is, but the mayor’s actions would be stronger and more specific if we tweak the set up and have another character smart enough to call him on the subtle action. If McDonald were Sherlock Holmes (or his double Greg House) or Hannibal Lecter, he might say something like this: “You brought up the Board without needing to which means that you aren’t comfortable making this decision or you’re just the messenger of the bad news and don’t have the courage (or authority?) to make me fire him. You want me to do it.” But this is not really his character or voice.)

Without having had a conversation with the writer (and maybe I should do this as an interactive podcast sometime) I have to make some assumptions. I am assuming that the nature of this mayor is that he worries about what other people think of him (his image, reelection) and that he is sort of a wimp and doesn’t have the strength to make a decision. This piece of information will inform the entire rewrite. Now, that you know the character, you can rewrite the scene from the top. Now, the Mayor has a magazine on his desk (or wall) with his picture on the cover. Or maybe he has a chart of his approval ratings. Maybe he makes reference the upcoming reelection. And instead of the generic “The Mayor Squirms”, you might see him walk over to the wall with the picture of him on the front of a magazine and straighten the frame. Suddenly the subtext of the scene is illuminated: I am covering my ass and image by pushing for you to fire him. (A stronger and more political character might not be afraid to be upfront about his motivations here.)

Without finding the subtext of the characters, the scene won't rise above mediocrity – and it’s not supposed to in a first draft, btw. But if the writer and McDonald can recognize the subtext of the mayor’s line (I am unsure of my power here and want to shift responsibility to the Board to cover my ass) for what it is, then the scene escalates into drama.

Does one of these lines better capture a personal beat as well as McDonald’s voice?

MCDONALD
If you weren’t so worried about being popular (kicks over public
approval chart) you might get some work done.
(BEAT: Calling him on his bullshit intentions)

MCDONALD
While you’re posing for photo shoots (counting poll reports), Strong is
putting his life on the line.
(BEAT: Putting him down, challenging his courage)

MCDONALD
Terry, do those pencil pushers really got you by the balls?
or
Terry, those pencil pushers really got you by the balls?
or
Terry, those pencil pushers really got that tight a grip on your balls?
(BEAT: Attacking him by cutting him down, castrating him)

MCDONALD
What do those pencil pushers have on you, Terry?
(BEAT: Calls him a FRAUD, attacks his intentions (if done sarcastically) or fighting to figure out the truth (if he is seriously concerned that he is being blackmailed or pressured))

Here is McDonald’s original response:

MCDONALD
And...

McDonald leans forward - the Mayor pulls back, a little intimidated.

I like the fact that McDonald was using a bit of intimidation here. It’s a character-specific choice. However, I am not sure it’s true to his character. Strong seems more likely to be the guy who might intimidate while McDonald is rather proper.

Moreover, McDonald wasn't really being intimidating. All he did was lean forward and say “and”. The sub-text between the two men hasn't yet escalated to a level where intimidation is warranted. And if intimidation is necessary … a line such as “What do those pencil pushers have on you, Terry?” is a strong choice because it lets the Mayor know that McDonald sees through his image, and the bullshit. And nothing is more intimidating than a person who can expose your vulnerabilities.

And notice how the new “what if” lines I brainstormed dig deeper. They allow McDonald to reveal his intelligence and intuition in picking up the mayor’s weakness. And his stronger bresponse forces the mayor into a tougher situation.

ACADIAN
He's run out of second chances, Frank.

If we escalate things like I suggested, this line might change to something more personal. However, I don’t think on a structural level I want to hear on page five about a character’s second chances before we have even seen ANY OF THEM. But instead of writing a new line for the mayor, I will just show you how using the what-if lines that I wrote for McDonald actually creates a chance for a stronger beat for the mayor. Depending on the McDonald line from above, the Mayor now has to respond with this beat: Defend his honor, crush McDonald by showing him he’s wrong, call him on an even bigger flaw, castrate him back, threaten him with a believable but disproportionate use of his political power. This might cause a back-and-forth or it might just be one nasty line thrown back at McD.

If you gave the mayor even one heated and more personal line, then maybe you could then return to the next line as is. In fact McD’s following line would be stronger because it would be a big surprise/change from the tumult back to a reasonable and calm friendship/bond/emotional appeal:

MCDONALD
He's had a few bumps in the road, but nothing THAT serious...let's not do this, Terry.

It is possible that you could make the emotional appeal a little more specific and/or tighter:

MCDONALD
He’s not the only one who's had a few bumps in the road...let's not do this, Terry.

OR

MCDONALD
Let's not do this, Terry.
Or accentuate the shifting of gears back to civility:

McDonald steps back, sits down and smiles.

MCDONALD
(softens)
Let's not do this, Terry.
Now, the beat becomes one of settling down and relying on trust or friendship or compassion. But it’s stronger and clearer if preceded by the opposite. Which would also create a context for the Mayor’s feeling the need to offer an Olive Branch:

The Mayor sits back as if contemplating the situation, then

ACADIAN
Alright, Frank. You've got two weeks. He screws up, he's done, got it?

The Chief sits back in his chair.

You might argue that the resolution should not be a friendly reconciliation, but one way or another you have to make the scene about more than winning an argument. These beats don’t make a dramatic scene:

 -I want him off the force.
 -Here is good reason to keep him.
 -I really want him off the force.

 -Here is a better reason to keep him.
 -Other people and I want him off the force.
 -I will punch you if you fire him.
 -Okay, I relent.

At the very elemental level, there is the goal of “making sure that Strong keeps his job,” but it always has to become more personal. Watch a Jack Ryan movie with Harrison Ford or Erin Brokovich. The characters might just need some boring piece of information but the scene will always involve stakes of higher importance.

Obviously these are not the ONLY way to make the above scene work on a dramatic level, but here are some beats that could make this scene more dramatic, more castable and more human:

 -Mayor pressures McD to fire Strong.
 -McD ridicules request.
 -Mayor tries to pull rank, use his power.
 -McD silence means he ignores him.
 -Mayor slides out from responsibility and blames the city council or desperately grasps for straws.
 -McD sees this weakness and calls him on his hypocrisy and cuts him down harshly, castrating him with words.
 -Mayor ATTACKS BACK by getting personal or defends himself like a cornered animal.
 -McD chooses to calm down and appeal to empathy or friendship.
 -Mayor offers an Olive Branch.

TWO LITTLE ACTION DESCRIPTION NOTES

Note that the last two action description lines have the mayor “sitting back” twice. Lose one. Probably the second. If sitting back in the chair hints that he is softening, then the line of dialogue PROVES it. But then this moment is over. Don't repeat your beats. What you need is how it has affected the McD. Or end on the line of dialogue. The worst choice is to end on the Mayor (who may not be a central character), especially if it’s a redundant action.

Also, by the end of the scene, we would know the Mayor much better. So whether its my assumption of his character or whatever Jim, the writer, decides, the description of his desk and office can be less generic. Under my assumption, there would be awards, pictures of famous people, approval polls, and magazine covers that feature his portrait. And then, of course, you must exploit the setting, so dialogue or blocking might interact with the props.

January 15, 2010

WHICH SCRIPT IS YOURS?

I feel like a cheater.  I decided to cut this (first draft) from my book proposal on scene writing.  But if you live an intertwined multi-media life, a column becomes a book proposal whose "killed darling" becomes a blog.  Welcome to my world....

MORE ON SCENE WRITING

by

Jim Mercurio


Imagine two scripts on an executive's desk. Each of these scripts has two hours worth of story in it. They both have cool concepts and are in the same genre.

The one on the left is the script the writer wrote before he or she read this book.

It has 3 brads.

The title page has the WGA number, copyright number and the Midwestern Address of the writer. And the email.

It’s 118 pages. It has some funny jokes but a few of them are buried in the clutter of unfunny lines or a few extra words here or there.

It has some funny scenes, but a few go on too long and there are a few extra pages of unnecessary exposition. A few times, the subtext of a character’s line is absolutely clear but this draft has an extra line that states the obvious intent of the line.

The main character is likable but unfortunately has a lot of flat and boring lines that no A-list Actor would ever say.

A lot of the scenes are static and talky, so the reader will have to envision that a good director will bring them to life to make it a real movie.

There are no typos and it’s an okay read and the writer comes off as close to professional.

Now, let’s consider the script on the right that was written after the writer read this book.

It has 2 brads. Why? Because the story starts here. There isn’t going to be a wasted anything. If it's not needed, it's not in it or ON IT.

Title page has an LA phone number or only email as the contact. No chance for the reader to get distracted or biased from an area code or address. There is already 1/2 as few words as the other one.

This script has just as much story as the first script but it’s nine pages shorter. Six of the pages are gone because of the tighter scenes and dialogue. There are more jokes, more tightly executed and less filler in between. A few are little more audacious than anything else he or she has read today. In fact, he or she "cuts and pastes" one and emails it to a CE at another company.

Just like the extra brad and the contact information. Everything not necessary is jettisoned. Explosition, gone. Explaining, gone. Characters telling characters what they already know, gone.

The main character has the best lines. They are all active, strong, full of subtext. He never has to say anything that any other character could say.  No yes or no questions answered with, well, yes or no.

Scenes use location, lighting, blocking, props, body movement and sound to tell the story. Several scenes that were all talk are either gone or rethought. The reader can see that there is a movie on the page. The script "directs" itself.

This is the tightest script that the reader read today. It took him or her 14 minutes less to read this script compared to the other one. The one or two cheats and embellishments contributed to the read, and the reader is relieved that he or can can pass the script on to his or her bosses. Even if it’s not the next reader’s cup of tea, there is not doubt this is a good script.

Which script do you want to be yours?