Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“There’s a quality that most first scripts share: fresh, surprising, and unspoiled.”
Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting)
Moviespeak

I was eighteen
Didn’t have a care
Working for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
But I was lean and
Solid everywhere
Like a rock
Lyrics by Bob Seger/Like a Rock

BreakingAway

The 1979 movie Breaking Away received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and Steve Tesich won the Oscar for his screenplay. It was his first produced feature film. Breaking Away, directed by Peter Yates,  also landed at #8 on AFI’s list of 100 Most Inspirational Films of All Time.

If I ever put together a Hall of Fame list of Hollywood movies that represent well the world outside of Hollywood, Breaking Away would be there. But the aspect of the movie and screenplay I want to look at today is what could be called texture.

In my last post writer/director Gary Ross touched on the texture of Seabiscuit by including key elements (fishing pole, tackle box, keysin one pivotal scene of a young boy going fishing. In Breaking Away the texture—the limestone from the area— is a major motif of the entire film.

The opening shot and opening scene are of rocks and a rock quarry in Bloomington, Indiana. Stones that were cut out of the ground built many of the buildings at the Indiana University Bloomington.

IU-MaxwellHall

Tesich (who was born in Užice, Yugoslavia but raised in Indiana) uses those stones brilliantly in his script as he shows what unites the town is also what divides it. Working in the rock quarries and cutting the stones provided jobs for the locals—the townies known as Cutters. But the buildings they built for the local college were more preppy than blue collar friendly. (This may not be true in real life, but it worked for the movie.)

Tesich touched on that contrast in the script and in the scene below shows a beautiful synthesis of the two worlds colliding—then merging.

EXT. CAMPUS – NIGHT

The campus is deserted. Dave and Mr. Blasé are walking slowly outside a huge classroom building. Mr. Blase lights a cigarette.

                                                MR. BLASE
Just one.  Don’t tell mother.
(looking at the building)
You know, I do this every now and then. Come here at night and…I cut the stone for that building over there…

                                                DAVE
Yes, I know, Dad.

                                                MR. BLASE
I was one fine stonecutter…Mike’s dad…Moocher’s, Cyril’s…we all were. Well, Cyril’s dad…Ah, never mind. The thing is. I loved it. I was young, slim and strong and damn proud of my work…and the buildings went up…and when they were finished…damnest thing happened…It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. But we just felt uncomfortable. Even now. I’d like to be able to stroll through the campus and look at the limestone but I feel out of place. I suppose you guys still go swimming in the quarries.

                                                DAVE
Sure

                                                MR. BLASE
So, all you get from my twenty years of work is the holes we left behind.

                                                DAVE
I don’t mind.

                                                MR. BLASE
I didn’t either when I was your age. But…Eh, Cyril’s dad says he tool that college exam.

                                                DAVE
Yeah, both of us did.

                                                MR. BLASE
So, how did…how did both of you do?

                                                DAVE
Well, I think, eh, one of us…eh…I won’t go, Dad. The hell with them. I’m not ashamed of being a cutter. 

And that’s pretty much how the scene played out in the movie between Mr. Blase (Paul Dooley) and Dave (Dennis Christopher). It’s a scene that shows the evolution of  both characters. At the beginning of the film Dave is fascinated with being an Italian bike racer (even though he’s an American in Bloomington, Indiana) and the the dad (Mr. Blase)—now a used car salesman— doesn’t understand his son’s directionless life. Nor does he think his son should go to college because he didn’t. But in the end, Dave’s way to break away from his directionless friends is to attend college. And his dad now sees that as a good thing.

The synthesis is a Cutter’s son will be going to the very college that he helped build. Perhaps if we could magically follow those characters today we’d discover that Dave became a successful architect and continued the building motif. But his flaw is while his education and talent helped made him financially set it also made him materialistic.

And Dave’s son doesn’t want anything to do with his father’s money or to go into debt  going the four-year college route, but instead wants to be an artist working with stone from the local quarry tapping into working with the land as his grandfather did.

All that to say, dig deep into the world you’re creating in your stories and mine the riches that surround your characters.

H/T to Jim Mercurio for mentioning the limestone in his Complete Screenwriting course making me want to revisit Breaking Away and dig a little deeper.

P.S. While these days Breaking Away is not as revered as Rocky or Raging Bull in the  movie world it did make AFI’s top 10 sports films. Which along with Hoosiers gave the state of Indiana two films in that category.

P.P.S. One of Dave’s directionless friends in Breaking Away is the former jock character played by Dennis Quaid—who for what it’s worth in that movie is built like a rock.

Related posts:
Storytellers from Indiana
Postcard #15 (Seymour, Indiana)
Against the Wind  (More Seger)
Frank Gehry on Creativity Limestone from Iowa used in LA concert hall.
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) I started this blog as an offspring of a first script—Diablo Cody’s Juno.

Scott W. Smith

 

“I’m very lucky that I had a movie that allows me to do something as enormous as staging what at that point was the largest sporting event in American history. And at the same time investigate small emotional moments like when Howard loses his son.”  
Seabiscuit writer/director Gary Ross

ScriptSea

Recently I re-watched Seabiscuit (2003) again and found a great interview on the DVD extras where the director/screenwriter Gary Ross explains how he broke down an auto accident scene which becomes a “pivoital point” in the movie.

The movie set-up is about moving forward into the future. Americans at this time have moved into the age of the automobile. A young boy (around age 12) decides to have an adventure and take his father’s car down river to go fishing. The following quotes are all from Gary Ross and the sections in italic are from his notes:

“What I like to do when I develop a shooting plan for the movie is sort of take the early parts of the prep to do it privately.  And at that point I’m sort of pretending that someone else wrote the script and I’m interpreting it. The shooting plan can encompass a lot of things—it can be the way I see the lighting. It can be performance notes. It can be blocking notes. It isn’t just as dry and clinical as a shot list. When I make these notes I’m still connected to the emotional intentions”

(Sc#67.) SERIES OF INSERTS. Fishing pole insert. Rafters. INSERT loading the tackle box. Showing his purpose now- pleasing his father. Getting ready. (All the material that will be scattered across the river bottom later…

“I understand that I’m using these inserts to set up something for later on.”

Last insert is the key in the ignition. His hand fights with the gear shift. It should probably be up shift to emphasize his shortness, craning over the dashboard. 

SeabiscuitCar

(Sc#74.) Whizzing by on the road. His car one way. The Logging truck the other. Yeah. That would work great. 

“(Laughing) I don’t know that it will work great, but I’m sort of talking to myself saying, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. Keep going with that.'”

Let’s not show the collision. Let’s allow that to stay in the imagination. Let’s show perspective—into Howard’s perspective at that moment. Getting a phone call [about his son being killed in an accident]. The moment of the accident is not as important as the news of the accident.

SeabiscuitRunning copy

Howard racing toward the camera. The world has gone quiet now.

“I think it’s important to say what you’re going to do with sound before you shoot something. Because the sound and picture are so completely fused. Sometimes the loudest things are a distant or silent scream…Those things obviously turn into a shot list, which is more dry or clinical, but when you have both things they enhance one another. One is almost the emotional roadmap to be able to read the other.

I did find a online version of the clip here but was not able to embed it into this post. Great to watch to understand the whole context. Consider it a solid free five-minute film school lesson that shows the intentionality of an Academy Award-nominated movie and screenplay.

And yet one more reminder of the importance of emotions in filmmaking.

Related posts:
Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008
Writing ‘Seabiscuit’ On writer who also wrote Unbroken.
Shelter from the Storm (‘Unbroken’)
Big’ Emotions (Another Gary Ross written screenplay.)
The Creature from… (Ross’ father—Arthur A. Ross—was also a screenwriter.)
‘It Take Guts To Be a Screenwriter’ (Gary Ross quote.)
40 Days of Emotions
Writing ‘The Godfather’ (Part 3) Includes a video showing the shooting book Coppola put together to shoot The Godfather. 

Scott W. Smith

“If I take the money I’m lost.”
Lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict

One of my all-time favorite screenplays and movies is The VerdictI happened to see it when when it first came out in theaters back in 1982 when I was in film school. And as I revisit it from time to time it I just appreciate the multi-layers of the film.

The David Mamet screenplay is listed at 91 on WGA’s list of 101 Greatest screenplays  just after Sidways and before Psycho. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Sidney Lumet’s direction, and Paul Newman lead role.

I think the film follows the Simple Stories/Complex Characters model, but what the film does is shows us a textured glimpse into the legal world. I haven’t read the Barry Reed book which the screenplay is based on, but my guess is Reed did the heavily lifting.

Reed (1927-2002) served in the Army during World War II before getting his law degree at Boston College. He was in private practice in Boston specializing in, according to Wikipedia, medical malpractice, personal injury, and civil litigation cases.

He’d actually been practicing law for 25 years before The Verdict novel was published so he had plenty life experiences to draw on. But there is a simplicity how the screenplay handles all the complexities of law and medical which make the script a wonderful study even for the new screenwriter.

The core the story is about a fading, alcoholic lawyer whose mentor throws him a case that appears to be an easy cash settlement case. One that will help him get back on his feet. That is until Galvin’s conscience kicks in and he decides to try the case for justice to prevail. And at the same time be a personal redemption for himself.

On page 38 of the screenplay Galvin actually verbalizes to a female friend in a bar what I believe is the theme of the story:

“The weak, the weak have got to have somebody to fight for them. Isn’t that the truth? You want another drink?” 

At the end of a Christopher Lockharts’ post Screenwriting 101 he has an excellent detailed outline of The Verdict which is well worth your time to read. Here’s some of his highlights:

LOG LINE: A drunken, washed-up attorney struggles against a goliath law firm to win a medical malpractice suit.

ACT ONE

PROTAGONIST INTRO

Galvin is introduced as an attorney lower than an ambulance chaser – he chases Hearses. He is a washed-up attorney- glory days long behind him. He is a drunk – who only seems to show signs of life when he is in a bar.

INCITING INCIDENT

For physical/external storyline: MICKEY jolts GALVIN into consciousness, reminding him that he has five-days to prepare for the ONLY case on his docket. This is a definite money-maker that will ensure GALVIN some much needed income (page 6-7).

For psychological/internal storyline: GALVIN visits his comatose client in the nursing home. He comes to understand the severity and enormity of the case before him (page 8).

PLOT POINT: END OF ACT ONE

GALVIN decides to try the case, “I have to try this case. I have to do it, Mick. I’ve got to stand up for that girl” (page 31). NOTE: This is the point in the story where the goal is establinshed. GALVIN’s goal is to win the case. A MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is proposed: WILL GALVIN WIN THE CASE? The MDQ is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told. 

P.S. To find a link to most of the 101 WGA top scripts visit Simply Scripts.

Related links:
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) Galvin belongs in the end of the rope club Oscars ’83.
Writing ‘Flight’ Another alcoholic/redemption story with some echoes of The Verdict. And one Lockhart actually had a role in getting produced.
Emotional Evolution/Devolution (Part 2)
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Great example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

 “I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

“The question is how do you get somebody to suspend their disbelief—that’s the central question in drama. And the answer in drama is you have to give them a plot. You have to make them wonder what happens next?…How’s he going to get out of the locked cage? What’s going to happen to Othello? And this goes back to the primal—the essence of the cerebral cortex. How do I get away from the wolf that’s trying to kill me? Which is very, very different than trying to figure out a logical problem. I think it’s absolutely two different parts of the brain…The forest is on fire, how do I get out of here?…It’s hard to write a drama, because it’s hard to write a drama with a plot. Because a plot means that at the end of the drama you have to resolve that problem which gave rise to the drama in such a way that’s both surprising and inevitable as per Aristotle. “
David Mamet
House of Game  director’s commentary
Excellent site for condensed commentaries: filmschoolthroughcommentaries 

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
‘There is Only One Plot’
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?)
Making Dramatic Writing Dramatic (Tip #98)
“Don’t bore the audience!”

Scott W. Smith

“I’d been through all the usual jobs of waiter, busboy, night clerk in a hotel, janitor in a nursery, and so forth, and I was running out of those jobs when Paul Sills again offered me a job in Chicago at what was then called Compass, which was an improvisational cabaret. And that’s where I began to work with Elaine May, who I had known before. I was very bad at it for months, and then I became better, and then I became better, and then I became pretty good. Elaine was very good at it.”
Mike Nichols
Film Comment interview with Gavin Smith

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 well 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

“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

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

Ch-ch-changes
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

%d bloggers like this: