Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

“You want to frustrate expectations, but you also want to break clichés in a surprising way. So in Hoosiers instead of benching the good player and putting in the bad player, [the coach] benches the good player and there’s no one to replace him. They play with four players instead of five.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Below is the Hoosiers scene (written by Angelo Pizzo and directed by David Ansaugh) where  the star basketball player isn’t listening to the coach (talk about frustrating expectations) but to those in the crowd all is good because that player keeps scoring. The coach takes him out of the game, and a few moments later when another player fouls out of the game the coach defies the expectations of everyone else in the building (well, maybe not Dennis Hopper) by not letting the star player back in the game. He deals with the dilemma by chosing to play with four players instead of five.

P.S. So the next time you have a guy run out of bullets, before you have him throw his gun at the person chasing him ask yourself what would Coach Gene Hackman (or screenwriter Pizzo) do to defy/frustrate expectations.

Related posts:
Hoops, Hoosiers, & Hollywood
Postcard #14 (Hickory, Indiana)
Storytellers from Indiana
Movie Cloning (Avoiding Cliches)
Chaplin on Embracing Cliches

Scott W. Smith



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Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker.”
Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection)

No Trespassing

“I think the opening image is usually about theme. And the question you might ask is what comes next? Character? Setting? Tone? Genre? Well, I don’t think that’s the right question to ask because there’s no perfect answer. I want you to think about your images and your sounds in your opening in order that you’re doing two or three things at once. In Citizen Kane we immediately get the castle, we get Xanadu. But is it just location? No way. We see the animals so it’s like a zoo, and a cage to suggest some kind of prison—and it’s dark. And there’s a NO TRESSPASSING sign at the gate and the camera’s going over that as we come in to discover the rosebud moment. So we know this movie thematically and storywise is going to be about trespassing on someone’s life and kind of digging in. So you see it’s not just about location. A great movie can never spend three minutes on this and three minutes on that, it’s got to being doing all of this at the same time.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. I’m sure someone has written a nice article about opening movie shots (or at least opening scenes) and how they tie into the theme of the film. If you know of one put it in the comments or shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com . And if you have a favorite opening image that ties into the meaning of the film let me know as well. The open images of the movie Witness being about community has been well documented. One could even say there are two communities at odds in that movie. The crooked, violent police community and the pious, anti-violent Amish community. The goal of one community is to kill the Harrison Ford character while the goal of the other community to preserve his life.

Related Post:
‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’
‘Study the Old Masters’—Martin Scorsese
Stagecoach (2.0) The John Ford film that Orson Welles watched 40 times before and/or during the making of Citizen Kane.
Screenwriting Quote #166 (Joseph McBride) McBride manually typed an entire copy of the Citizen Kane script while a student in college.
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that…”
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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“The choice between good and evil is really no choice at all.”
Robert McKee

Back on the first day of summer I wrote a post called the Screenwriting Summer School where among other things I pulled quotes from The Dialogue Series that was on You Tube. Since the full interviews of that series have disappeared online I think this month I’ll round the summer school (summer lasts longer in Florida—it was 85 degrees today) with some quotes from Jim Mercurio’s Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course.

“I believe characters boil down to pretty much one clear dilemma. A dilemma is a choice between two equally good things or two equally bad things. Like in The Godfather, Michael the very good thing: to not be a criminal, to not be in the Mafia, to unlike his family stay outside of it, that’s pretty good right? However you know what’s also good? Saving his family from complete destruction, ‘cause once his father dies Sonny and Fredo aren’t going to do it, right? So he has a choice. You can look at it as a hard choice, I don’t want to be a criminal  but I don’t want my family to die. But either way it’s a choice he doesn’t want to have to make. “
Filmmaker/ consultant Jim Mercurio ()

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“I learned a technique from a guy many years ago, a working backwards technique. So I start with the question, How do I want the audience to feel? And I write that answer, I want the audience to feel like their life has value. Okay. I draw an arrow down. How do I visually see that happening in the movie? The bad guy, the old drunk gets a medal as a saint. Then I work backwards from that. What’s the scene that culminates that? Oh, he gets honored at a kid’s saint ceremony in a Catholic school. Then you just go, what precedes that? I start with this working backwards process, so in very broad strokes, I just start to kinda feel it out. I don’t have to do the whole script, but you know, I have to know where I’m going in order to get there… Then, once I’ve done that to where I feel good about where I’m headed – granted I usually just do the third act, ‘cause that’s where you wanna know where you’re heading – I then outline scene to scene going forward…This is pretty detailed, pretty much every scene, just a one-liner. So and so does this. So and so does that, a one liner…I write the longhand the first draft, and it’s abbreviated – I write one line of action. I don’t believe in a lot of description. Then I start the dialogue. I then get to the computer, and I type through. As I’m typing, I’m editing, so now I’m on the second draft, which is great. So when I’m done, and type THE END, I have basically a second draft, which is way better than the first draft on paper ‘cause now I’ve had time to think about it, digest it, and check it, and work it through.”
St. Vincent writer/director Theodore Melfi
WGA, West interview by Dylan Callaghan

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“How many actors are so unlikable and loveable in the same moment? That’s Bill [Murray].”
Writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent)

“When you have a character as disagreeable as Vincent (Bill Murray), if you can keep him disagreeable, even when he becomes agreeable, you have done the job. Because you and I ultimately both know how the movie’s gonna end. Period. We might not know exactly how they’re gonna get there, we might be surprised along the way, but ultimately, you don’t go sit down and watch a movie called The King’s Speech and think that the King is gonna stutter in his last speech. We all know watching a movie called St. Vincent, that Vincent is gonna end up being the kid’s saint. This is not a thriller. To me all movies are about the journey to get there…This movie to me, basically, in one word, is ‘value.’ How we have a value, and we think we have a value as human beings. We all have a value and that value is equal. Over time, the prostitute has a value, the single mom has a value, the old drunk has value, the Catholic priest has value, the kid has value.”
Theodore Melfi
WGA, West interview by Dylan Callaghan

P.S. Saw St. Vincent this afternoon and enjoyed it throughly. One of my favorite films of the year. Strong writing and great casting, with Murray at the center as a man at the end of his rope—and in real life heading for an Oscar nomination.

Related posts:
Postcard #74 (Bill Murray)
‘Lost in Translation’ Golf Scene
End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14)

Scott W. Smith

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Two Lines of Action

“I try never to go longer than two lines of action because I think the eye naturally drifts away. We all do it. You look at the script and there are breezy reads—Scott Rosenberg (Con Air) to me pioneered how to do a breezy quick read.”
Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air, The Longest Yard)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters

Related post:
Is 110 the new 120?
Screenwriting by Numbers (Tip#4)
Writing Beyond the Numbers (Tip#8)

Scott W. Smith 

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“America was born as a rebel country, and Americans have always had a soft spot for the outlaw.”
Professor Maurice Yacowar
Married to the Mob by Mark Sauer

One of my favorite discovers since starting this blog in 2008 is being able to find the connective tissues between ideas, scenes, ideas, characters and sometimes entire stories found in movies and TV shows. Often writers are open about their influences and yet other times plead ignorance for similarities.

Many critics said The Sopranos was indebted to Goodfellas—I can’t remember who called it “the companion guide to Goodfellas.” But there is a key element to The Sopranos that I think was taken from Donnie Brasco. Much was made about how fresh and original it was for Tony Soprano—a mobster—to go therapy.

But Johnny Depp’s character in Donnie Brasco is an undercover agent who has infiltrated the mafia. And when what started out as a six month FBI assignment starts turning into years it causes friction at home with his wife. Like a military man or a truck driver his lifestyle is somewhat unorthodox, yet there is something about the job that he loves. In the scene below his wife (Maggie played by Anne Heche) says tells her husband that he’s becoming like the mobsters he’s investigating.

Eventually Depp’s character’s wife says she wants a divorce. He tells her, “There hasn’t been a divorce in my family since back to Julius Caesar. Divorce someone else.” They settle on going to marriage counseling.

The Sopranos first aired in 1999 , Donnie Brasco was released in 1997. Here’s the beginning of the first counseling scene from a Donnie Brasco script dated 1992.


SHELLY BERGER, late 40s, flannel shirt, earth shoes -- PSYCHOTHERAPIST -- 
sits with Donnie and Maggie.

                         ...He comes home at all hours of the 
                         night, without announcing when or 
                         why, or where he's been for three 
                         weeks. Or three months. Then he 
                         expects everything to be just the 
                         way he wants it. He vacuums the entire 
                         house. Do you know another man who 
                         vacuums? It's abnormal. Of course, 
                         he expects the girls to drop their 
                         lives when he shows up...

                         I'm their father, Maggie. I ring 
                         that doorbell I expect them home.

                         They think it's a Jehovah's witness.
                              (to Berger)
                         You'd think he'd tell me where he 
                         goes or what he's doing --

                         That's for your own protection.

                              (to Berger)
                         I know he's cheating on me --

While Donnie Brasco screenwriter Paul Attanasio used the book Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life as his foundation, he said the counseling concept came from his imagination. This doesn’t take any thing away from what the great David Chase created with The Sopranos, it just helps us understand how the creative process works.

And since Donnie Brasco was not a made man in the Mafia, but FBI agent Joe Pistone that means the Tony Soprano—unless there is a film/TV show I’m unfamiliar with—was technically the first Mafia man depicted in a counseling setting. File it under, “the same thing only different.”

In my post Where Do Ideas Come From? I quoted James Young Webb, “ An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Orson Welles all acknowledged they built on what came before them.

P.S. Of course, Attanasio including a romance into Donnie Brasco accomplished many things including adding pressure (i.e. conflict) in Donnie Brasco/Joe Pistone’s. (On top of his pressure of some in the FBI questioning the operation, pressure from the mob itself, life or death circumstances if his cover is blow, and conflict with himself over his relationship with mobster Lefty Ruggiero, who will be killed or go to prison because of the undercover operations.

The Mike Newell directed film was not a box office hit when it first came out, but it has aged very well.

But about that husband/wife element of Donnie Brasco, Oscar and Emmy-winning director Sydney Pollack once stated something to the effect that each of his film always had a romance element. Certainly true of Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, The Way We Were, and Tootsie.

P.P.S. I was enjoying The Dialogue series that was put on You Tube, but it went dark yesterday. Anyone know why. It now says those videos are private. If anyone knows why please shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com.

Related Post:
(Note: While I’ve used the term cloning before, I now prefer the concept of sampling to describe what goes on in connecting movies.)
Movie Cloning (“Raiders”) Some of the DNA of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Movie Cloning (Pirates) Some of the DNA of Pirates of Caribbean.
Movie Cloning (Part1) 

Scott W. Smith


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