Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, improv as a structured theatrical art form began in 1955 when David Shepherd and Paul Stills started the ensemble group the Compass Players in Chicago. Many of the alumni later went on to be part of Second City.

Along with Compass Players Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Valerie Harper and others was a German born, former pre-med major, and method trained actor named Mike Nichols—who would later go on to be one of the few people to win the rare combination of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.

When Nichols, who passed away this week, was asked in 2013 if there were any ground rules for improvisations with the Compass Players he replied:

“The greatest rule was [Elaine May's], ‘when in doubt, seduce.’ That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there only were three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.”
Film and theater director Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner

While not improv scenes, yesterday’s post had the classic seduction scene from The Graduate, and here’s a negotiation scene from that film which Nichols won an Oscar for directing:

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Nichols’ first feature film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf but I seem to recall Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fighting throughout the film so it wasn’t hard to find a fighting scene. (Lots of fighting and 13 Oscar nominations.)

P.S. The all respected acting teacher Del Close—who was once roommates with Gene Wilder at the University of Iowa)— was part of the Compass Players before later influencing/teaching Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, John Candy, Tina Fey, and John Belushi.Close also co-authored Truth in Comedy, The Manual of Improvisation.

In the book The Funniest One in the Room:The Loves and Legends of Del Close, Kim Howard Johnson writes, “Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tennessee Williams

“I did four plays with [Neil Simon]: Barefoot and Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Odd Couple. There were real discoveries. Sometimes we didn’t even know things were funny. Walter Matthau says: ‘You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.’ ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar.’ And the audience laughed so hard, he had to sit down and read the New York Post.

“I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don’t think they’re very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn’t a great play in the world that doesn’t have funny parts to it — as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”
Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
As told to Stephen Galloway/ 2012 Hollywood Reporter

Related Posts:
The Shocking Truth (Tip #84) “The truth is your friend.”—Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan
Hunting for Truth “Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”—Novelist Paul Lieberman
Telling the Truth=Humor “Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.” Phil Foster via Garry Marshall
Insanely Great Endings Screenwriter Michael Arndt puts The Graduate (written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on the novel by Charles Webb) on his short list of movies with “insanely great endings.”

Scott W. Smith

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All stories are about transformation, and that change comes with a crushing truth about ourselves.”
Blake Snyder

Just gonna have to be a different man
Changes/David Bowie

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Are you ready for a chemistry lesson that will transform your screenwriting—maybe your life? I hope so because in less than 60 seconds Walter White not only gives us a glimpse into chemistry, but one that nails the overarching theme of the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, and at the same time gets to the heart of storytelling—and perhaps the history of the human race.

Can you really do that in just 60 seconds? Well, I don’t know if you can—but Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan did.

"Breaking Bad" pilot  script Written by Vince Gilligan

“Breaking Bad” pilot script
Written by Vince Gilligan

You can read the full Breaking Bad pilot script dated 5/27/05 online, but here’s how Bryan Cranton as Walter White spoke the words in the pilot directed by the writer Vince Gilligan.

“Chemistry is—well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this, electrons—they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements they combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle; solution, dissolution just over and over and over. It is growth and decay, and then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”
High School chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad

“It is growth and decay, and then transformation”—that sentence packs a punch. And as we’ve learned in books, TV shows, and movies— as well as world history— that transformation is not always positive.

Related posts:
Breaking Bad’s Beginning
Breaking Bad Y’All
‘The Farmer and the Tweaker’
TV Vs. Feature Films (Vince Gilligan)
Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cool Moments’
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
‘Groundhog Day’ and Cheap Therapy

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t want to do a film unless I’ve got a chance to create a mood and an atmosphere, which is what I think my job is. Anybody can photograph a film — you can just put lights on and make an exposure. I want the challenge of creating an atmosphere and the right frame for the director.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (1917-2007)
Interview with David Morgan on shooting Cape Fear (1991)

In Jim Mercurio’s DVD Complete Screenwriting From A to Z to A-List he has a section where he mentions that screenwriters should think like filmmakers, meaning some of the key roles people physically do working on a film—the director, the director of photography (DP), and the editor.

Mercurio like many screenwriting instructors says that you shouldn’t write camera direction overtly like “Using a 200mm lens…” or “a Stedicam follows the cop down the stairs…”, but that there are ways to cheat your vision in your screenplay.

“One of the most effective ways to get at mood and tone is with light. In fact, here are a couple of sentences from the first Mission Impossible, just little pieces of action description where everything is done with light;

A bare bulb shines down the contents of a shabby hotel room.

The American Embassy glitters beside the Vitava River.

‘Glitters’ is the suggestion of light…I think about the scene in Cape Fear where Max (Robert De Niro) is harassing them (Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis) and he’s smoking a cigar, and the smoke is wafting up with the light through it—now that’s a DP. That’s how a DP thinks; ‘How can I make this visual?’ ‘How can I make this beautiful?’ ‘How can I tell this story with light?’

Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio

Here are some more screenwriting examples I found piggybacking on Mercurio’s ideas which could be see as any combination of the roles of the director, the DP/cinematographer, or editor.

Example from St. Vincent screenplay by Theodore Melfi that suggests a wide angle lens:


School pickup. Oliver’s an ant amongst the THRONGS OF KIDS waiting for a ride home.

Example of camera position from Gone Girl screenplay by Gillian Flynn:


We see the back of  AMY DUNNE’S HEAD, resting on a pillow.

Example of a close-ups inferred from The Verdict screenplay by David Mamet:

Gavin twists tea bag around a spoon to extract last drops of tea. His hand movers to his felt pen lying on the table. He moves his hand to the paper, open at the obituary section. We SEE several names crossed out. He circles one funeral listing.

Suggestion of a tracking shot from Nebraska by Robert W. Nelson.


Woody walks down the sidewalk toward the BUS STATION. David pulls up alongside him in his car and rolls down the window.

Use of color from Promised Land script by John Kransinski and Matt Damon:


In the first minutes of a cool Spring day we see a idyllic landscape of blood orange colored sky hanging above the tree covered mountains of McKinely, a small town at the foot of a mountain.

Here’s a description from The Artist screenplay by Michael Hazanavicus which could be done with a complicated crane shot or a sequence of wide, medium, and close-up shots.


There’s hardly anyone in the theater. The people that are there look bored more than anything. At the back smoking a cigarette George takes the failure on the chin.

And circling back around to lighting, here’s an example of getting at mood and tone on an exterior shot from the Flight script by John Gatins:

                                       WHIP (CONT’D)
                         C’mon sweetheart, show me the sun.

Suddenly, clouds –we see a beam of light breaking through the black 12 o’clock high. A God ray.

And in Flight you could even say that ray of light is symbolic of the overarching theme of the entire movie where Whip (Denzel Washington) moves from darkness to light, from living a lie to living the truth.

P.S. The above Cape Fear (1991) clip, written by Wesley Strick (reportedly 24 drafts) and directed by Martin Scorsese, shows how cinematographer Freddie Francis employed a few lighting cheats himself.  Can you see the cheats in this shot taken from that scene?


I’m no Freddie Francis, but I’ve shot several short films and won a Regional Emmy for location lighting so let me take a guess at the lighting cheats in the above shot of De Niro.

The key light appears to be coming low because it’s brighter on his shirt and lower face than on his forehead and hair meaning the light is coming low from inside the car. (Something like a Kino Flo Mini-Flo would do well if you were shooting this scene today.) It’s a cheat because car dash lights (even on old Mustangs) aren’t bright enough to light up a faces. (At least with the older technology Francis was using. (I have used my iPhone flashlight and pushed the ISO higher for similar effect on videos I’ve shot digitally.)

In the background there is separation in the tree and the wall background so there are at least two lights there. Maybe more and gelled (or a TV) to add some color. And there is a slash of light hitting the side of the car and mirror. And finally when De Niro puffs on the cigar that is back lit which could be yet another light or spill from one of the other lights hence doing double duty.

All that work done by a film team for a series of shots that are on screen for a total of about 10 seconds. Think of the layers of just De Niro sitting in his car: cars moving in the foreground and background, he’s smoking a cigar which adds some movement as the smoke blows in the air adding visual interest, and there are extras walking in the background. That challenge for the screenwriter is to peel back the layers of their story using a few words and sentences.

Francis won two Best Cinematography Oscars (Glory, Sons and Lovers) and also four BAFTA Best Cinematography awards (The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman). And I should mention that he also shot a film in Iowa—David Lynch’s The Straight Story.

P.P.S. To see how editors cheat go to the 1:56 mark of the above video clip of Cape Fear and you’ll notice that the car that crosses the frame is a Chrysler convertible, but a few frames later on the closer up shot there is a SUV or mini van. It’s an intentional jump cut to add tension/disharmony to the scene.

Related posts:

10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Cinematography and Emotions
Cinematography and Emotions (Part 2)
Lighting ‘Friday Night Lights’
Shooting ‘Chinatown’
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Film-Maker)
David Lynch in Iowa
Study the Old Masters
Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Helpful link:  ASC, The Society of Cinematographers

Scott W. Smith



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“There’s a great scene in Annie Hall when Alvin and Annie—I think they’re at a party and on a balcony—and they have some small talk and every time they small talk a subtitle comes up to say what they’re really saying…this is exactly what subtext is.”
Jim Mercurio
(On the scene below written by Woody Allen)

“There is great pleasure in having and figuring out that what a person is saying is not exactly what they mean. That’s what you have to fight for. The rule is have fun. Make sure if you know what the beat is that you’re trying to hit—the intention of the character, find a clear way to communicate it that actually doesn’t look like it. And that’s where you can have some fun.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related posts:
Writing Subtext (Tip #43)
Visual Subtext (Tip #39
The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps
Screenwriting Quote #39 (Woody Allen)

Scott W. Smith


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I’m OK—You’re OK?

To paraphrase Jim Mercurio, action descriptions at the beginning of scenes are less about literary prose and more about establishing the characters in the scene, mood, tone,  pointing out important props, and giving the essence of the space:


Sean’s office is comfortable. Books are stacked against the wall. There is a PAINTING on the wall behind Sean. Sean is seated behind a desk. Lambeau sits in a chair in the back of the room, next to Tom. A long beat passes, they wait.
From the Good Will Hunting screenplay
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck


I don’t think in the Good Will Hunting screenplay that the 1969 book I’M OK—YOU’RE OK is mentioned but it’s prominently (yet subtly) featured in the background of a key part of the movie when psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams)  has a tense (and unconventional) introductory counseling session that ends with Maguire’s hand clutching the throat of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and a threat.

The whole subtext of the scene could be called “I”M NOT OK—YOU’RE NOT OK.” You could even say it’s one of the themes of the entire movie. Heck, I imagine a history professor or theologian could make the case that that’s the entire problem of the human race.

But my point is that visual cue is not in the screenplay. Perhaps it was added by set decorator and moved into places by the director. That’s how the collaborative process works. But in the screenplay Matt Damon and Ben Affleck only needed to write the basic setting description that includes what’s core to the scene.

“Books, painting and a chair that’s pretty much all we need. Basically later on we’ll learn what books there are. We’ll learn the details. But the books, the painting, and the photos, and the chair, that’s where everything in the scene happens. Everytime [Will Hunting] gets uncomfortable he sits down and gets up. Or if he’s trying to get under his skin he looks around and finds a book or find a picture. And eventually the painting is the thing that gets under his skin. I don’t need to know the details of the book until later, I don’t need to know what the painting is yet, but it’s all there now and we’re not going to spend five or six lines giving those details. Those will come out later.
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Here’s how the scene plays out:

P.S. I saw Good Will Hunting three times when it first came out in theaters and imagine I’ve seen it a dozen times now, but had never noticed the I’m Ok, You’re Ok book in the scene until Mercurio pointed it out on his DVD.

Related posts:
Descriptive Writing -Pt 5, Setting (Tip#26) “It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting anyway—it’s about the story, it’s always about the story.”—Stephen King
Two Lines of Action “I try never to go longer than two lines of action.” Sheldon Turner
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’

Scott W. Smith

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Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
Gimme Shelter/Rolling Stones
Lyrics by Mick Jagger/Keith Richards

“I’m attracted to subjects who overcome tremendous suffering and learn to cope emotionally with it.”
Unbroken author Laura Hillenbrand @laurahillenbran

“I’ve got so many scars, they’re criss-crossing each other!”
Louis Zamperini whose life story is told in the movie Unbroken

“I want to be able to say it can seem dark, and it can seem hopeless, and it can seem very overwhelming, but the resilience and the strength of the human spirit is an extraordinary thing.”
Unbroken director Angelina Jolie
Interview with Tom Brokaw

“His story is a lesson in the potential that lies within all of us to summon strength amid suffering, love in the face of cruelty, joy from sorrow. Of the myriad gifts he has left us, the greatest is the lesson of forgiveness.”
Laura Hillenbrand on the passing of Louis Zamperini earlier this year

P.S. Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote Seabiscuit, suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome.

Related Posts:
‘Unbroken’ Louis Zamperini (2.0)
Writing ‘Seabiscuit’
Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing Quote #24 (Laura Hillenbrand)
40 Days of Emotions
End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) Pretty sure Unbroken will be in the ’15 version.

Scott W. Smith

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