“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


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

Home Field Advantage

“Think about different ways of telling your story without dialogue…Try to find visual ways to tell your story.”
Jim Mercurio

Dr. Grant: Are you sure the raptors are contained?
Dr. Sattler: Unless they figure out how to open doors.
Jurassic Park, written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp

“In Jurassic Park in the kitchen scene where the velociraptors are chasing the kids, there’s no way the kids should escape velociraptors, but they’ve got home field advantage. Everything about the kitchen is used against the velociraptors. There’s doors and they have claws. There’s stainless steel which has a mirror-like reflection but it’s also slippery. And the tile floor is slippery, too. And there’s a freezer that has a weird handle. So all these things together are how these kids are able to escape the velociraptors. And basically [the kids] have home field advantage, it’s using that location in a clever way.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. There are even a few more layers to that classic Spielberg directed scene where the filmmakers used the location and props to add conflict and drama:
1) The first thing the kids do when they enter the kitchen is turn off the lights again using what’s at hand for survival, giving a horror like lighting to the scene. (But the DP used small windows placed on high on the kitchen set to allow light to spill into the kitchen so it’s not pitch dark.)
2)  It’s used against the kids where the ladle falls to the ground altering the velocirapors of their location.
3) The round window in the kitchen door adds drama and a touch of humor when the velociraptor  breathes on the window and then peeks through the window and his own condensation.
4) Once the velociraptors figure out how to use the handle on the door, it’s one of those heavy doors that closes automatically so there is a little push back the raptor as to figure out.
5) The raptors make a loud noise which reverberates through the kitchen full of reflective surfaces and the young boy covers his ears.
6) After the raptor fully enters the kitchen, what’s worse than being hunted by a raptor in a kitchen? Being hunted by two raptors in a kitchen!
7) At one spot it actually looks like another visual humor cue where we see just the raptors claws on the tile floor and it looks to me as if there is a little tap, tap, tap of the claw as if to say, “Now where are those little kids I’d like to eat?”
8) The tail of the raptors is used to push over many pots and pans that crash on top of the kids and then onto the hard floor.
9) The young girl uses the ladle to distract the raptors because they are close to the boy and he is frozen in terror.
10) A door jams in one of the places where the young girl tries to hide.
11) Kitchens tend to have ice, right? The filmmakers use that as well.
12) What the filmmakers didn’t use: A round door handle on the kitchen door which would have prevented the raptors from entering in the first place. Of course, they could have and raptors could have just pounded the door down making for a dramatic entrance. But there was a nice set-up/pay off by playing off the line, “Unless they figure out how to open doors.”

Related posts:
Visual Conflict
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Everything I learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

“If we are to change our world view, images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He’s not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he’s really needed.”
Czech politician and playwright Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall so it seemed liked a fitting place to drop in a photo that was taken of me on a video shoot about ten years ago in former East Germany. I’m leaning against a sculpture that represented the separation of East and West Berlin and I’m actually facing a large section of the Berlin wall that was still standing at the time.

I’ve been on hundreds of shoots in my career, but the one day of driving around Berlin shooting b-roll on a sunny, blue sky day is easily one of the top five single shooting days in my life.

Germany, like the United States, has a mixed bag of history—and thankfully many talented filmmakers over the years that have shown the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Berlin Wall 1889


Here’s a bonus video featuring a studio in Berlin which is one of the oldest movie studios in Berlin. (And now also one of the largest studios in Europe.)

Scott W. Smith

Have you ever seen a one-armed man punching at nothing but the breeze?
If you’ve ever seen a one-armed man then you’ve seen me
The Wrestler/ Bruce Springsteen

Breaking all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searchin’
Searchin’ for shelter again and again
Against the Wind/ Bob Seger

A little Springsteen and Seger to help round out a week of posts dealing with movies featuring characters seeking Shelter From The Storm.

Scott W. Smith

I want to feel, sunlight on my face
See that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the Streets Have No Name/U2

Not all people seeking shelter in movies (and life) are in the mist of a world war like in my last new posts on Fury and Unbroken. Not all are running from a literal storm. Some struggles are more personal. Closer to the homefront—even in the home. Three movies came to mind this morning about women seeking shelter from—to borrow the U2 phrase—various kinds of “poison rain” that have damaged more lives than all the atomic bombs combined. (Wayward fathers, abusive husbands, drugs & alcohol.)

I started this run of “Shelter From The Storm” posts based on the Bob Dylan song, so it seems fitting to end this post with lyrics from another Dylan song:

May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever Young/ Bob Dylan

P.S. If you’re in an abusive situation may you seek shelter from the storm today:
The National Spouse Abuse hotline is 1-800-799-7233
National Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Information help line is 1-800-784-6776
Alcoholics Anonymous 

Related Posts:
Sleeping with the Enemy (The novel & the story have roots in Cedar Falls, Iowa—as does this blog.)
‘Winter’s Bone (How it Got Made) One of my favorite films in last decade.
‘Winter’s Bone’ (David Morrell)
‘Winter’s Bone’ (Debra Granik)
Susannah Grant on Failure (Screenwriter of 28 Days)

Scott W. Smith

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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