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Posts Tagged ‘David Mamet’

“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

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 “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

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“As the day ended, the five were satisfied, they had done something new, something different, something more!”
The Numberlys
William Joyce & Christina Ellis

Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Cool Change/Little River Band (Written by Glenn Shorrock)

Today is post #1,901 on Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. I know I haven’t done something as “different” as The Numberlys did. After all they took a world that knew only numbers and formed letters and words. Now that was revolutionary.

All I’ve done is spend a few thousand hours laboring over books, magazines, online interviews, etc. looking for a cohesive (and sometimes contradictory) view of screenwriting (sometimes spilling over into other filmmaking disciplines). I think I have 99 more posts in me to make it to 2,000. After that? I don’t know.

But it’s time for a cool change.

My original goal in 2008 was a book and it just grew and grew. I’m actually on the tail-end of editing the “best of” posts down to three 60,000 word books. Sort of a beginning, middle and end. I’m exploring some ebook options and if you have any experience or advice in that world please shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com .

I don’t have much more of a game plan than that. When I was in film school I used to have a Nike poster in my dorm of a lone runner with the words, “There is no finish line”—which seemed cool at the time. But on a little reflection, I realized I like finish lines. We need finish lines. Finish lines are useful. It’s a way to measure things.  (You know what doesn’t have a finish line? Hamsters running on a wheel.)  It just seems like 2,000 posts on screenwriting is a good finish line.

theres-no-finish-line

The Regional Emmy Award and shout-outs from Diablo Cody, Edward Burns, and TomCrusie.com–as well as the many readers over the years have all been much appreciated. (Heck, yesterday had the most views all year.) Even if I stop writing daily posts here I’m sure something new will pop up. A new blog or perhaps weekly videos.

Finding a way to monetize it or have it open up more speaking opportunities would be great. Spending time getting more dramatic writing done would be ideal.

Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet was once asked if the theater was dying and replied, “The theater is always dying and always being reborn.” Certainly that definition could be used to explain a lot in our ever-changing society. I just found out today that the cable on our TV has been off for two months because we didn’t get a new box thingy. They credited our account and since we didn’t miss it we dropped cable altogether.

I’m not a Luddite, I’ve been watching The Sopranos via Amazon Prime and movies on Netflix streaming through my BluRay and playing on my TV.  Most college freshman I’ve read don’t have a TV in their room preferring to watch everything on their computers or phones. TV is dying and being reborn.

And so it is with Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places—it’s dying and being reborn. I’m just not sure yet what that new manifestation will look like. All suggestions welcomed.

‘The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos crying for order, for meaning….”—Arthur Miller

P.S. The Numberlys book, App, and film was created by Oscar-winning Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana—Shreveport qualifies as an unlikely place. I wrote some posts about them ( Filmmaking in the Other LA, Old Fashioned & Cutting Edge) a couple of years ago.

Update: Soon after I wrote this post, I heard some people talking about the bowling alley at Downtown Disney (Splitsville Luxury Lanes) and one of the people said, “Bowling’s coming back.” Bowling is always dying, and always coming back.

Related Posts:
Netflix + Emmy Nominations = New World Order
Putting the Bust in Blockbuster

Scott W. Smith 

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“Protagonists have to be active, they’re making their own fate all the time.”
Screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women)

“David Mamet says the one question an audience asks is WHAT’S NEXT? I agree. Let each scene drive the story forward. Make sure each moment is vital no matter what page it’s on.”
Ken Levin (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Fraiser)
Post on his blog The World As Seen By A TV Comedy Writer

“I think of [story beats] more in terms of one scene pushing the next scene into existence. And within a scene there will be certain beats because there’s a kind of progress that happens in every scene. And I think everybody who knows much about drama understands that the character is starting here, certain revelations or actions take place in the scene and you’re in a different place at the end of that scene. And what happens in that scene then makes the other scene happen. And so there’s this kind of because, because, because, that runs all the way through dramatic writing.  And so I don’t create schematics the way so many screenwriting books have done. I don’t think there’s anything magical about a certain page number, but I do know that the story happens in three large sweeps. The three act structure is not that artificial. Some people break it down into five— I think that’s quite legitimate, because act two is very long, so that can be broken down into whatever size you want. But generally speaking there is a progress toward and that is what makes dramatic writing dynamic.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Jay Fernandez  (Part 2)—at the 14:25 point of the above clip.

Related Posts:
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO?
Screenwriting Quote #94 (David Mamet) “Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal—so that he, as discussed elsewhere, is focused to go on to the next scene to get what he wants.”

Scott W. Smith

 

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“IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”
David Mamet 

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct,because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on Finding Nemo. And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two.Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience. Editors and screenwriters have known this all along. It’s the invisible application that holds our attention to story. I don’t mean to make it sound like this is an actual exact science, it’s not. That’s what’s so special about stories, they’re not a widget, they aren’t exact. Stories are inevitable, if they’re good, but they’re not predictable.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I think I first read that 2+2 story concept in an interview with Billy Wilder or Ernst Lubitsch. (I’ll try to track it down.)

Related Posts:
Mr. Silent Films
Emotionally Silent Dialogue
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1) “I thought making a silent film would be a magnificent challenge.”
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46) “One of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.”—Hitchcock
Garry Marshall’s Directing Tips (Part 7) “The reaction to the action is critical.”—Blake Edwards via Marshall
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
Ken Burns on 1+1=3

Scott W. Smith

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“Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future,and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, ‘Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’ And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘Make me care’ — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.  We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I just realized if you took Stanton’s Make me care” and added UCLA professor Richard Walter’s one unbreakable rule “Don’t be boring” you’d have a total of just six words that may all you really need to focus on. If you need more toss in Limitless screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s one-sentence screenwriting manual, “Do they want to turn the page?” and David Mamet’s “INVIOLABLE RULE:THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”  All the screenwriting books, blogs, magazines, podcasts, seminars, workshops, and college classes piggyback on these four simple concepts:

1) Don’t be boring
2) Make me care
3) Do they want to turn the page?
4) THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC

Still want one more helpful tip to make it a handful? on the road to being a better writer? Okay, here it is;

“Writing and reading. That’s all that there is. There’s nothing else.”
David Mamet (The Verdict, Glengarry Glen Ross)

Related Posts:
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Everything I Learn in Film School (Tip #1)
 The single best way to address numbers 1-4.

Scott W. Smith

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“If there’s one thing I learned in prison it’s that money is not the prime commodity in our lives…time is.”
Gordon Gekko
2009 script Money Never Sleeps written by Alan Loeb

On this repost Saturday I’m going back to a 2008 post I wrote after a tornado hit Iowa. When a tragedy hits somewhere in the world or someone famous dies I think of this post. This week actor James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) died at age 51. My thought and prayers go out to the Gandolfini family. If there is a face to the positive change that hit television in the late 90s it is of Tony Soprano played by Gandolfini.

But Dang, 51 isn’t that old. Though that’s how old screenwriter/blogger Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) was when he died. Shane Black who I’ve been quoting all week is still very much alive at age 51. I happen to be 51. So that number did jump out at me when I heard the news.

Death is no respecter of age—or of persons. So this is just a reminder to have a life beyond your work and creative endeavors.

“Screenwriting is a huge part of my life. It’s my profession, it is my vocation. It has been so for nearly two decades now and hopefully for another decade still. It’s not the most important thing in my life by far. By far! You know, my wife, my kids, it’s not the be all, end all.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Identity Thief)
Scriptnotes Ep. 87

Here’s the post that originally ran on May 31, 2008:

“When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.”
Chinese proverb

Parkersburg, Iowa
©2008 Scott W. Smith

Last Sunday one of my partners at River Run Productions had 15 seconds to make it into his basement with his wife and dog before an EF 5 rated tornado ripped through his Parkersburg, Iowa home.

In less than a minute his house was gone and both cars totaled. But he, his wife and dog were safe. The storm killed seven people, destroyed over 200 homes, and damaged another 400.

Iowa is no stranger to tornadoes, but this one was the most powerful to hit the state in over 30 years. It’s one more reminder that things can change in a New York minute—or even an Iowa minute.

Friday I went to Parkersburg to shoot footage of the destruction and interviews for an insurance company.  I have been through a hurricane in Florida and a major earthquake in California and I have never personally seen the devastation that I saw as the result of that tornado.

From where I took the above photo, every direction I looked basically looked the same. It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed. Human beings tend to have short memories so this is one more thing to help remind us how fragile life is.

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog but not much about keeping life in perspective with a creative career. The fact is most of us have difficulty balancing our lives.

I’ve collected some of my favorite quotes over the years that are a little random, but I hope there’s something in here that you can hang your hat on—or at least cause you to smile or reflect on your life and dreams. But mainly I want you to understand that whatever creative dreams you have there’s more to life than chasing that rainbow.

“My biggest disappointment so far is that having a career has not made me happy.”
Shane Black
(Quote after being paid $1.75 million for writing The Last Boy Scout and $4M for The Long Kiss Goodnight)

“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade                                                                  

 “I don’t dress until 5 p.m. I have a bathrobe that can stand…Yes, I am divorced. One writes because one literally couldn’t get another job or has no choice.”
Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind)

“I got into screenwriting for the best of all reasons: I got into it for self-therapy.”
Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)

“For the first couple of years that I wrote screenplays, I was so nervous about what I was doing that I threw up before I began writing each morning. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s much better than reading what you’ve written at the end of the day and throwing up.”
Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct)

“I’m not very good at writing. If I succeed, it’s by fluke.”
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon)

“If you get rejected, you have to persist. Don’t give up. It was the best advice I ever got.”
Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask)

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind)
He also has a masters in fiction from NYU

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.” (It’s worth noting that Martin was on top when he walked away from stand up comedy and never performed as a comedian again.)
Steve Martin
Born Standing Up

“Starting in 2002, I knew for a fact that I had to get out of this business. It was too hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough, it was that it was too hard. What kept me in it was laziness and fear. It would be nice to say it was passion and I’m a struggling artist who didn’t give up on his craft. All of that sounds good, but the truth is it was laziness and fear.” 
Alan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire)

“Like the career of any athlete, an artist’s life will have its injuries. These go with the game. The trick is to survive them, to learn how to let yourself heal.”
 Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way

Dee: “Jane, do you ever feel like you’re just this far from being completely hysterical 24 hours a day?”
Jane: “Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people are hysterical 24 hours a day.”
Exchange from Lawrence Kasden’s Grand Canyon

“We’re constantly buying crap we don’t need and devoting ourselves to endeavors which, perhaps on reflection, with a little bit of distance, would reveal themselves to be contrary to our own best interest.”
David Mamet      

Everything in this town (L.A.) plays into the easy buttons that get pushed and take people off their path; greed, power, glamour, sex, fame.”
Ed Solomon (Men in Black)

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
Stephen King

So life in general is hard, and being a writer or in the creative arts is a double helping of difficulty.

Several years ago Stephen King was hit by a van when he was on a walk. One leg was broken in nine places and his knee was reduced to “so many marbles in a sock,” his spine was chipped in eight places, four ribs were broken, and a laceration to his scalp required 30 stitches. It was as if his characters Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Cujo had ganged up on him.

But he had learned a thing or two about adversity after an earlier bout with drugs and alcohol that he eventually won. One of thing things he learned was to not to get a massive desk and put it in the center of the room like he did early in his career. That is, writing shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life.

“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room.  Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Stephen King
On Writing 

Two years ago I produced a DVD based on the book Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. The concept was to shoot a Koyaanisqatsi-style video that that showed the arc of life from birth to death. I shot footage from New York City to Denver. I shot footage of a one day old baby in a hospital, people walking into an office building in Cleveland, snow failing in a cemetery and the like.  One of the shots for that video was in Parkersburg, Iowa.

It was a traditional Friday night high school football game at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. (What makes this school unique is though the town only has a population of 2,000 it currently has 4 active graduates playing in the NFL.)  That high school building is a total loss because of the tornado. Here’s a photo of the scoreboard sign that was blown down during the storm.

There will always be the storms of life. And as I’ve written before, movies can help us endure those storms and even inspire us. (“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”-Carlos Stevens) So work on your craft because we need great stories that give us a sense of direction, but don’t waste your life just writing screenplays.

Related Posts:

Don’t Waste Your Life (Part 2)

words & photos copyright ©2008  Scott W. Smith

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