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”Without conflict it’s hard to have drama. One of the famous lines about literature [comes from] the French writer Henry de Montherlant [who] said about happiness, that it’s almost impossible to write about. He said, ’happiness writes in white ink on a white page’—it doesn’t show up. If people are happy, there’s no story.”
—Author Salman RushdieMidnight’s Children )
MasterClass, Determine How to Tell Your Story

And with the Rushdie quote we’re back to one of my favorite topics related to screenwriting—conflict. Something I’ve converted many times on this blog. Here a few links over the years:

Conflict—Conflict—Conflict

Conflict: The International Language of Drama

The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle 

Neil Simon on Conflict 

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

And since Rushdie touched on happiness being hard to write about, it seems a fitting point to mention a Susan Cain TED talk where she mentions that people listen to sad songs at a far higher rate than happy songs.

”Just think of how many musical genres tap into sorrow: There’s Spanish flamenco, and Portuguese fado, and the Irish lament, and American country music, and the blues.”
—Susan Cain

I’ll leave it to psychologist and cultural critics to unpack that thought. Except to say that I’m guessing the reason has to do with some kind of cathartic release. And many great movies are steeped in sorrow. I’ve always been fond of the this quote:
“Airplanes that land safely do not make the news. And nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.
—Richard Walter

Audiences enjoy watching characters struggle with life. But they appreciate a satisfying ending where there’s at least a hint of happiness at the end of the movie. I was reminded of that this weekend when I watched the Alexander Payne film Nebraska. (A film I’ve seen multiple times, and whose music beautifully captures the melancholy aspects of the movie.)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

Casablanca is one of the best told narratives I’ve ever witnessed as a fan.”
—Director Steven Spielberg

When I started this blog in 2008, I thought it was going to be a year long experiment. Now I’m less that a year away from the 15th anniversary. When I checked a few weeks ago I’d written over 3,200 posts. That’s crazy. And it’s crazy that I’m still discovering things I’ve never seen like the above interview with Julius Epstein who co-wrote Casablanca with his brother Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. (And while the story was based on the play Everyone Eats at Ricks, Julius said the famous ending is very different from how the pay ended.)

Julius was a political science and history major at Penn St., but took a couple of playwriting classes while there. He graduated in 1931 during The Great Depression and before he turned to writing professionally, he actually three fights as a professional fighter. (Two wins and a draw.) Through his sister-in-law he got an opportunity that lead to his first big break. He wrote a sketch for a group called The Funny Bone after they were booked to perform on a big show in that era—The Rudy Vallee Variety Show. He and his brother were paid $40 for that sketch.

(My thin connection to that era is that back in film school around 1983, we did a student production at Rudy Vallee’s home in the Hollywood Hills a couple years before he died. Estate-keeper told us stories about Errol Flynn riding his horse over back in the day to play pool and entertain the ladies. In the interview, Julius says that Flynn was the only actor allowed at the Warner’s writers table because of his lavish stories.)

Not long after that a frat brother from college sold an idea to one of the studios and encouraged Julius to come to Hollywood where he could get him a $25 a week job as a secretary. His parents gave him money for the train trip from Brooklyn. The rest is Hollywood history.

Friends (I believe one was screenwriter Jerry Wald) took Julius to a movie soon after he arrived in Hollywood and pointed out to him what a close-up was, what a fade was, and other filmmaking terms. He called it his “Four year film school in an afternoon.” Julius died in 2000 at the age of 91, and was in his mid-80s when he did this interview. Here are 10 writing tips that I gleaned from this interview:Friends (I believe one was screenwriter Jerry Wald) took Julius to a movie soon after he arrived

1) In hopes of selling his own ideas he spent 6-8 months starting to write a 15-page story idea everyday so he could summit to studios. He didn’t always finish his idea, but he was persistent until he finally sold one. When asked where he got his ideas and he said from ”everywhere.” Including stealing ideas from Time Magazine.

2) He was given a four week trial contact with Warner Bros. for $100 a week. He made the most of that opportunity and ended up working with Warner Bros for 17 years. This was back in the day when Warner Bros. had 75-100 writers on staff. Julius said you had to be versatile, because assignments were based on who was available. (Though he admitted he couldn’t write gangster talk.)

3) In 1935 (just four years out of college) he wrote or contributed to seven films released that year. Though he says none of them were any good.(When studio head Jack Warner asked Julius Epstein if he wanted to change his name on his first screen credit—to something less Jewish—Julius declined.)

4) “Every scene must pull its weight” (even if it’s just an exposition scene).

5) He thought improv was a great evil and the bane of the industry.

6) It took he and his brother 8-10 weeks to write a first draft. Three months at tops.

7) He wrote in longhand on yellow legal paper.

8) He didn’t follow any structure.

9) He admitted that of the 50 screenplays he wrote ”most of the characters speak alike.” Adding that “most writers write themselves.”

10) He was at his best writing with his brother, and according to Julius, they were the ones that came up with the famous Casablanca ending. In the play Rick (Humphey Bogart’s character in the movie) is arrested at the end, instead of “round up the usual suspects” and “this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

There’s a lot of folklore surrounding who did what on Casablanca, but it is a masterpiece that can be enjoyed and studied on many levels: Including the direction of Michael Curtiz, the acting, the cinematography of Arthur Edeson, and the music of Max Steiner.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

”I think we’re actually in the heyday of [professional storytelling] right now. There is the right medium for all kinds of stories.
—Chris Moore (Co-producer on Good Will Hunting)

“You have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
—Blogger/book author/ Oscar-winning screenwriter/webshow host/Tv writer/musical writer Diablo Cody

You don’t hear the word heyday much these days. But I like that producer Chris Moore (Manchester by the Sea) used it on his Indie Film Hustle podcast interview with Alex Ferrari. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about this being the new golden era of television. But the phrase ”golden era” has a romantic feel to it. When Moore said we’re in the heyday of professional storytelling it made me pause and ponder what he meant. This is how he unpacked it on the podcast:

”Now there are way more professional ways to be a storyteller than there used to be where you can make a living. That’s the kinds of thing I did as an agent. Maybe you should do this as a novel. Or maybe this would be really cool as a play. Or maybe this is an animated piece because you can do really funny stuff with annimation that you can’t get away with on live action. . . . Think about Good Will Hunting. How would we make Good Will Hunting today? I’m not sure it would be a $25 million movie. It could be a bunch of episodes. It could be a podcast—just Ben and Matt’s characters talking about how the hell to get out of Southie. Kevin Smith could have done Clerks as a podcast and it would have been super funny. I think Kevin’s the kind of guy who would tell you, I just want to tell these great stories about these these characters and situations—and however is best to tell them, I’ll tell them. Anyway, that’s what I think’s interesting about professional storytelling right now. There’s a lot of options.”
—Chris Moore

In fact, Kevin Smith today has the Smodcast website where you’ll find multiple podcasts, info on where to find his movies, in person speaking events, and links to his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. A few years removed from his 2018 heart attack, Smith is still hustling and still telling stories.

Moore who also produced American Pie said that today that film franchise might simply start of with a series of TikTok videos featuring the actors to gain interest and a wider audience, before it got turned into a limited series. He does point out that some of these storytelling methods are more lucrative than others, but the keep point to be creating. Here are some ways you can put your stories out into the world beyond just film and TV. Ways that could lead to bigger stuff.

Graphic Novels
Story stories
Short films
Blogs
Podcasts
Stage plays
Novels
Audio books
Web Series
YouTube
TikTok

In the last chapter of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touch the importance of these alternative ways to tell stories. Ways that are especially important if you live outside New York and LA. Here are some quotes I’ve grabbed from various blogs posts I wrote going as far back as 2008.

“You need to be very ‘platform agnostic.’ You want to find an audience wherever that audience is. So think about the web, TV, and theaters. Open yourself to as many possibilities as you can imagine.
—Morgan Spurlock
Filmmaking Quote #36 (Being Platform Agnostic)

“Stop calling yourself a filmmaker. Call yourself a storyteller. Call yourself a content maker. Start looking at everything as all the different ways, all the different platforms, all the different methodologies of telling your story and getting it out of there. And don’t confine yourself to one almost archaic form. Now young storytellers will come in and say, ‘This is my series idea,’ ‘This is my long form series,’ ‘This is my episodic series,’ ‘This is my web series.’”
—Indie film producer Christine Vachon on
’Stop calling yourself a filmmaker’—Producer Christine Vachon

”There are so many places to tell stories. I want to tell cool stories and not have to ask for permission.
—Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is Platform Agnostic

I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago or anywhere, and feel like you have something to say or a story to tell—we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix and watch Tangerine [a film shot on a iphone that played at Sundance] and you’ll go, “Oh, that can be a movie? Holy cow. ”
—Mike Birbiglia
Waiting to Be Great

“The advice I give for filmmakers starting out is don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for the industry… It’s a mistake to wait for Hollywood to tell you you have a good idea. If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.”
Producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Get Out, Paranormal Activity)
Don’t Wait for Hollywood

“People ask, ‘What’s the advice you’d give young filmmakers?’ And I always say, ‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood. Take your lack of resources and make it work for you. Look at ClerksEl MariachiMetropolitan, even McMullenSlackers.  All of these films embraced their lack of resources and instead focused on story or style or characters, and dialogue.
—Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

”Make three-minute movies, make a five- minute movies, make webisodes, because it is a maker culture now. And that’s how people get noticed and get movement, with distinct voices and things that are made and not just on the page.
—Screenwriter Clare Sera
‘Smallfoot’ and the Legend of Clare Sera

P.S. Here are a couple of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting written by and starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Close your eyes and listen to the dialogue and sound design and see if you think it would have worked as a podcast.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

I have a feeling this is going to be Chris Moore week. The producer is known for his work on Good Will Hunting, American Pie, and Manchester by the Sea.

But if you can, track down the DVDs of the first two seasons of Project Greenlight which featured Moore along with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. There are serious filmmaking lessons taught there as two films go through pre-production, production, and post-production. Just two examples that come to mind from memory:

1) Moore takes to task the location scout of Stolen Summer for picking a location to shoot two kid actors where the train goes by every five minutes making it difficult to get a full take of the scene in before they are interrupted again.

2) Elsewhere he criticizes the director for wasting a whole day building a platform in a lake for an eye of God POV shot looking down on a young boy in the water. It could be a brief drone shot today, but back in 2001 it was team of people building a platform. All for a shot that was too over-the-top to be used. Thankfully, just before they wrapped production for the day, Moore recommended to the cameraman that he get a shot of the young boy at dusk just on the edge of the lake just looking out at the water. That shot that probably took a minute to shoot and is what made the film.

Fast forward to the end of last year when he reflected on how the film business had changed since he first began working in it back in the 1990s. Certainly, the COVID pandemic beginning in 2020 affected the whole theatrical experience, marketing, and the changing nature of being a movie star. As streaming companies are having their finest moment as viewers embrace options at home or on their phone, Moore sees a disturbing trend emerging where streamers are just pushing out movie after movie to keep subscribers.

Red Notice [2021] is still going to be bigger for Netflix than a movie that doesn’t have The Rock, Gal Godot, and Ryan Reynolds. But when I use that example when I’m speaking in colleges, what I say is think about It for a second. That should be seen as the example as the end, right? To some extent, that movie should be recognized in our business as the jumping of the shark. . . .They had to have three of the biggest movie stars to get attention. I think those are three of the most charismatic performers we have out there. I did a movie years ago with Ryan Reynolds called Waiting, and he is super entertaining. I think The Rock is so charismatic. And Gal Godot has proved to be charismatic. She can be fun. I go, I’m definitely watching that movie. But when I watched it, I’m like it’s sort of like that phrase ‘It’s all sizzle and no steak.’ It’s fine, it has all the stuff there. But if you’re going to sit down and bring The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Godot together, you should f—ing blow me out of the water…But the point is that we might be at the moment of volume right now, where all these streamers and everybody want so much product that everyone is jumping the shark. Like the whole business is jumping the shark right now.”
—Oscar-nominated producer Chris Moore
Indie Film Hustle 542, interview with Alex Ferrari

Once upon a time, people used to go to a movie just because Paul Newman, or Robert Redford, or Julia Roberts, or George Clooney, or Sandra Bullock, or Denzel Washington was in it. Today, because of the zillions of movie options (on top of video games, YouTube, TikTok, etc.) there’s a good chance viewers won’t even watch a streaming movie featuring the biggest name actors. And Moore’s point is even if they do, the movie’s themselves tend not to be the prestige movies of the past. The much anticipated Top Gun 2 comes out in May, and it will be interesting to see the response. The deck is stacked in its favor. But if people don’t show up in theaters to see “a Tom Cruise movie”( if there ever was one) look for fewer $150 million budget movies that are star centered.

P.S. And to show that Alex Ferrari was hustling back in 2003, here’s his audition tape for Project Greenlight, Season 2 where he made it into the top 25 of director’s chosen. That video reminds me of a Judd Apatow quote, “If you’re not obsessed, you don’t stand a chance.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

.


”As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.”
—Michael Dirda on the novel Nightmare Alley
Washington Post book review

”When you stop hoping, you’re in a bad way.”
The Great Stanton in Nightmare Alley

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! I’m going to try a little experiment with the book Nightmare Alley. I’ve listened to the audio version of the book and watched the 1947 film version starring Tyrone Powers. But before I see the 2021 Guillermo Del Toro-directed version (or read the script he wrote with Kim Morgan), I’m going to see how I’d break the story. Which probably will be a hybrid between the 1946 book written by William Lindsay Gresham and the 1947 movie written by Jules Furthman. (Furthman wrote over 100 produced screenplays and received an Oscar nomination for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, was a credited writer on The Big Sleep (starring Bogart and Bacall), and was also co-screenwriter on a Tarantino favorite, Rio Bravo.)

But first, let’s back up before the book existed. Before movies, television, and programs streaming on the internet, people were entertained by vaudeville acts, carnivals, circuses, and local fairs. In the 1800s, P.T. Barnum became quite wealthy for a period showing unusual acts, sideshows, and curiosities. (He didn’t start the circus acts until later in his life.) Some of his tactics were uncouth and unethical. But spend a short time on the internet, and you’ll see that even in our sophisticated times little has changed. Human nature is human nature. (For a long time, the attractions featured people with abnormalities: Siamese twins and the elephant man.)

In the early to mid-20th century, there were also things called spook shows. These featured seers or spiritualists who advertised they could reach the spirit world. This manifested itself in the appearance of people and objects levitating, performing hypnotisms, and with seances trying to communicate with the dead. They were popular for decades. (And they appear to be popular again. An article two days ago in USA Today is about a 26-year-old guy who claims to get messages from the dead through his five senses. He also has a Netflix series and is said to have ”amassed a waiting list of more than 300,000 people seeking readings.”)

But those along with traveling ”sideshows” and “freak shows” have mainly faded from American and European culture. But Gresham was fascinated by stories he’d heard of the transient carnival life and even wrote a non-fiction book on the subject titled Monster Midway: An uninhibited look at the glittering world of the carny life (1953).

Grisham’s book used that backdrop to create a stew of syncretism, mixing spiritualism, the occult, Christianity, Tibetan mysticism with good old-fashioned fast-talking showmanship.

Nightmare Alley centers on telling the story of Stanton (Stan) Carlisle. An ambitious 21-year-old young man who’s hit a rough patch around The Great Depression of the 1930s. He talks his way into an entry-level position in a lower rung carnival. In the first chapter he sees a freaky man/beast bite the head off a live chicken. It sets the tone of the story. When he asks the man who hired him how he got somebody to do that job, he’s told, ”In the carney, you ask no questions, you get no lies.”

In the next few chapters, Stan meets the cast of characters in working the carnival: Bruno the muscle man, the electric chair woman, the world’s smallest man, and Zeena the mindreader. Zeena is an older woman who is loyal to her alcoholic husband because he taught her the mindreading business. Stan wants to learn from her so he can move up ladder, but she guards her secrets. But after her husband dies after accidentally drinking from the wrong bottle—poisonous wood alcohol. Stan and Zenna team up to keep her act going. She needs him. (Think Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler.) Stan learns “the code” to being a mindreader. Which boils down to a combination of common sense (“I think you’re having trouble in a relationship with someone close to you,” “You have financial concerns”), and reading signs such as the condition of people’s shoes and hands, and snagging some inside information via trickery.

After Stan learns all he can from Zeena, he runs off with the cute young woman Molly from the carnival. He’s ready to be a mindreader rock star in a more profitable area and needs Molly as his assistant. I won’t go into the full details here, but the book basically has Stan succeed but then bite off a little more than he can chew. You could say it’s a zero to hero, then hero to less than zero story. The book also goes deeper into Stan’s backstory (some mommy and daddy issues) and a more convoluted ending than can fit into a two-hour movie. (But it will be interesting what elements del Toro keeps, ignores, or changes from the book and original film.)

Here’s the entire 1947 movie on YouTube:

The 1947 movie and the book start on the same track, but it seems like the movie only has time to cover about 65% of the novel. That’s not uncommon, plus the book deals with themes and issues that movies made during the Hays Code era (1934-1968) generally avoided. Both the 1947 movie, and the novel stand on their own. I’m reasonably sure that del Toro’s version will not be concerned about the Hays Code when Hollywood censoring itself.

But the bones of Nightmare Alley make a good story. Thematic cousins are Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, that premiered on Broadway in 1949, A Place in the Sun (1951), and Elmer Gantry (1960). And it’s not hard to draw parallels to more recent TV shows: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. Nor is it hard to draw parallels to stories of the distant past from Shakespeare to Greek mythology—like Icarus flying too close to the sun with wax wings. And it fits the film noir genre popular is the 1930s through the 1950s well. Nothing new under the sun, folks. It’s way too late for a spoiler alert—but rarely do these men missing the exit stories have happy endings.

Del Toro has said this is a movie that he wanted to make early in his career, but he didn’t have the clout to pull off. So fresh off a best picture Oscar for The Shape of Water (2017)— a modern carnival-like tale that in del Toro’s own words was about, “a woman getting funky with a fish”— he had the clout to finally make Nightmare Alley. Or at least his vision of Nightmare Alley. Anytime you condence an almost 300 page book into a feature film there are aspects that will be lost. About all I know about del Toro’s version is that it is visually stunning and he was more interested in making it a character study rather than a morality tale.

But just as an exercise, here is how I’d breakdown the story after listening to the audio book and watching the 1947 movie:

Act 1

Introduce Stanton as an ambitious, prickly yet likable 21-year-old man. (Closer to Tom Cruise in Rain Man than the mid-40s Bradley Cooper that del Toro cast). Someone looking for adventure beyond what his small town can offer. He talks his way into an entry-level job in a traveling carnival. The opening sequence is crucial. When he asks the guy who hired him how he got a person to be the geek (the man/beast who bites the head off a live chicken), he’s told you don’t want to find out. But, at the end of the film, Stan will find out.

At first, the world of the carnival is fun and exciting. New people, new towns. The thrill of seeing an audience entertained. Stan has found his tribe. And he hustles to learn every aspect of the carnival business: setting the stage, setting up lights, working with low budget special effects, and using music and sound effect to move an audience—all on no budget. But he soon tires of the grind and the low pay. The bad hotels, bad food, and bad people. But he sees Zeena and her mind-reading skills as the older woman who has the secrets he can learn to move up in the ranks. And learn a thing or two about sex. Zeena is loyal to her alcoholic husband, but only to a point. When her husband is no longer reliable to be her assistant, Stan fills in that role. Then fills in as her lover. Stan is accidentally (but we’re not sure) involved in what leads to the husband’s death—the drinking of poisonous wood alcohol. Once Stan learns how tp play the mindreading game, he has ambitions to keep climbing. He starts a relationship with Molly, a beautiful young woman working in the carnival. When that relationship is exposed, it hurts a lot of people. Stan is even physically beaten by the strongman in the carnival who saw himself as Molly’s protector. Stan and Molly decide to flee the carnival life together. As Stan assesses the situation, he realizes that this could all work out for good.

Act 2

Stan and Molly are now a dynamic duo in a more refined Chicago setting. This is no carnival; they are a big headline act. More like something you’d find in Las Vegas today. Stan wears a tux as the mentalist known as ”The Great Stanton” for his accurate psychic readings. Molly wears a beautiful gown as his assistant. The audience is full of wealthy Chicago movers and shakers. Stan is quite the dashing entertainer, and the audience is buying whatever he’s selling. His carnival training is paying off. Stan and Molly are living the big life. Nice 5-start hotel suites and fine dining. But Stan also has the attention of an investigator who lets him know if he breaks any laws, he’s going to get arrested.

Dr. Lilith Ritter, a sophisticated psychiatrist, contacts him after seeing his show. She is not a believer in act, but is intrigued that some of her clients are enamored with him. Stan has trouble sleeping and night and agrees to meet with her regularly. He tells her things that he’s never told anyone, including his involvement in the death of Zeena’s husband in handing him the wrong bottle of alcohol. They develop a bond leading us to wonder who is conning who.

Midpoint conflict: Molly yearns for something more than just the hustle, the con. For all their success and high living, they don’t appear to be getting ahead financially. They’re not building a life together. Molly’s mental fatigue has caused her to slip a few times in the code signaling endangering their whole act. She also is a little jealous of the Dr. Ritter, and the time Stan is spending with her. Molly wants to get married, own a house, and have kids. She questions Stan’s commitment to her. When she’s serious enough to threaten quitting, Stan proposes to her and says they’ll get married soon and have a big, long honeymoon in Europe.

But Stan hears the ticking clock on his business plan and decide he needs a big payday soon. That is where Dr. Ritter can help him. She gives him inside information on wealthy clients of hers, giving him an opportunity to do private and profitable readings. This works so well with one client that the woman gives Stan what he’d typically make in a year for comforting her on her dead daughter. She wants him to build his own place and be able to help other people. Stan feels invincible now and seduces Dr. Ritter. Or does she seduce him? Dr. Ritter agrees to keep his money in her safe—for a cut of his business. And gives him a lead on the richest guy in town.

Now all Stan has to do is tap into this guy for the big payoff that will allow him to retire from the racket. Dr. Ritter has the dark secret that has bothered the wealthy guy his entire adult life. Stan meets with the guy who is skeptical of him, but he’s not getting any younger and has questions he’d like answered before he dies. He wants evidence that Stan has special powers. Armed with a few secrets from Dr. Ritter, Stan gives him enough proof to satisfy him. The rich guy gives him a generous deposit to go deeper, but warns Stan that if there’s fraud involved, he’ll make sure Stan goes to prison. Molly disagrees with this new direction. Even Stan gets cold feet because it’s a sink or swim moment. Dr. Ritter tells him to man up. Finish the job.

ACT 3

Stan convinces the wealthy guy that he has communicated with his dead girlfriend from his college days. What the wealthy guy wants more than anything is to talk to her himself. To tell her he’s sorry for the whole situation. (She died after having an illegal abortion.) The guilt of his involvement still eats at him all these years later. All the financial success he’s had in life has not eased his pain. Stan tells him his vision of building a spiritual city, and the man is such a believer in Stan’s gifts that he gives him $150,000. Stan could flee town now and be comfortable for a long time. But he wants one more payday.

He convinces Molly to dress up and play the dead college student by promising her this is the last thing he’ll ask her to do. Stan uses every trick he learned at the carnival (plus a sedative to the rich guy supplied by Dr. Ritter) to trick the wealthy guy into actually seeing his college flame. He tells him that he cannot touch her until his spiritual city is built. But the rich guy gets carried away and gropes after Molly causing the illusion to be broken asMolly yells and pushes him away. Stan knocks out the already groggy rich guy and they flee.

Stan tells Molly to get the first train out of town. He tells her to meet up with the original carnival where they met and he will eventually meet her there. He then goes to Dr. Ritter and tells here what happens and asks for his money. She gives it to him. When he says that he’ll contact her when the coast is clear, she coldly responds that he has confused her professional work with a personal relationship. He’s confused, she’s not. He rips open the package of money to discovers not stacks of hundred dollar bills, but stacks of one dollar bills. He demands the rest of his money. She calmly tells him that since she has been seeing him he has struggled with delusions of grandeur. She has played the player—the old gypsy switch. When he tells her he could turn her in for her role. She says, “And who would believe you? Besides, I have a recording of you confessing to a murder.” He says, you planned this all along. She says, “My, you do have the gift of reading minds. But I do think you need to spend some time in a psychiatric hospital.” When he hears a distant siren he realizes it’s time to flee.

The next scene is some time in the future— we don’t know the timeframe—but Stan is almost unrecognizable. Unshaven, dirty and disheveled clothes, and riding on a boxcar of a freight train hobo style. He’s drunk or hungover and trying to hustle a fellow for a drink. The young man just laughs at him, and tells him he doesn’t drink. Plus he tells Stan that he only has 4 bits to his name. That’s ten shots of nickel whisky, so Stan tells him, “Something tells me you have a scar on your knee.” The young man says, “Sure I have scars on both knees. I have scars all over. I’m a working man, not a con man.” He’s not playing Stan’s game. When Stan gets angry, the man says, ”Now you’re talking. Speak what’s on your mind.” Stan rants on and it’s his first honest moment of the movie. He talks about the nightmare alley he’s heading down. His thoughts are interrupted when the train suddenly slows down for a frisk. Stan is too weak to flee. He tells the men with clubs and lanterns that he’s a traveling preacher and they decide it’s not even worth arresting him.

(Jodie Foster says she is drawn to stories about people in spiritual crisis, and Stan definitely hits that mark.)

In the final sequence Stan finally arrives in some small town at the carnival where he first got a job. No one recognizes him as he walks around because of his rough shape. He comes up on Molly doing a mindreading act, except she is now the headliner. He finds the boss who first hired him and says that he has the gift of doing cold readings and needs a job. The boss doesn’t even recognize him. Tells him he’s not hiring. In fact, he’s too busy to even look at the disheveled man. But Stan, says those magical words, “Please, I’ll do anything.” The boss looks and him eye to eye, and then recognizes him, “The Great Stanton.” He reaches for a bottle of whisky and asks Stan if he’d like a snort. Stan says that he gave up drinking, but he could use a snort. The boss said he let a good one get away—Molly got married six months ago. He holds up the bottle again and Stan knows that he’d like another shot. “The opening I have is not a great job, but it’ll keep you in coffee and cakes, and a shot now and then. Of course, it’s only temporary— just until we get a real geek.”

On Stan’s face is the recognition of how one becomes the man/beast geek who bites the heads off live chickens.

The End

The book ends does end with Stan being offered the part of the geek, cementing a nihilistic ending. The 1947 movie has that scene. But adds an additional scene where Stan has some sort of breakdown and gets chased by carnival workers. Molly sees Stan and calls out to him and he surrenders. She says she’ll take care of him. That ending reminds me of what writer/director Frank Darabont once said—that every film should have an uptick at the end, otherwise what’s the point. It’s a hint that he’ll get better. (Even the movie Seven has a slight uptick.) But after the things Stan’d done to Molly, I’m not rooting for them to get together. I have no problem with a somber—or at best ambiguous ending (will he take the geek job or not?). It makes it more of a cautionary tale. More Greek tragedy.

My next post will be after I see the del Toro version and read that script.

P.S. William Lindsay Gresham, the author of the Nightmare Alley novel, actually returned to the New York City hotel room where wrote much of that book a decade prior, and killed himself. He went down his own nightmare alley. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer who later became a Christian, then embraced Scientology, before ending up an atheist later in life. Upon his death, it was reported that a note or business card was found in his pocket that read “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” His first wife was was Joy Gresham who later married writer C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). The movie Shadowlands starring Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins is the story of Lewis and Gresham. And that is the rest of the story.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

”You learn more from finishing a failure than you do from writing a success. And you definitely learn more from finishing a failure than you ever do from beginning something that’s fantastic but stops.”
Neil Gaiman

Audio book written and read by Neil Gaiman

This post ’makes a nice companion piece to yesterday’s post How to Be a Better Writer a Year from Today (According to Ray Bradbury).

”If you want to write an award-winning television episode, you got to write episodes of television that critics don’t like. If you want to write an award-winning movie, you got to write movies that critics don’t like. If you want to write award-winning short stories, you got to write short stories that nobody reads—that don’t really work. That’s okay. And after you’ve written 10,000 words, 30,000 words, 60,000 words, 150,000 words, a million words, you will have your voice. Because your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.”
—Neil Gaiman
MasterClass, “Finding Your Voice” (Lesson 4)

Gaiman talks about the first book he wrote being an unpublished children’s book that only exists in his attic. He revisited the book after he established he writing career and was pleased to find a page and a half of that book where he recognized his emerging voice. Then he put the book back in his attic where it belongs.

In lesson 18 of Gaiman’s MasterClass he talks about “Rules for Writers” that he first read in an essay by Harlan Ellison, that was was based on Robert Heinlein’s essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction. Gaiman added his spin to it, and here’s my shorthand version. (There’s no shortage of writers interpreting Heinlein’s original thoughts for various reasons.)

1. Start writing.

2. Finish what you write.

3. Submit what you write (to someone who can publish it).

4. When it comes back rejected (make changes as needed or as requested), send it back out.

5. Start writing the next thing.

Heinlein had a slightly different wrinkle, but the above list captures the essence. It’s worth pointing out that Heinlein’s original essay was written in 1947. That was the same year that The Saturday Evening Post published his short story The Green Hills of Earth. A decent payday for a writer back then. So he had reason to be hopeful about writers following his rules.

“If you will follow them, it matter not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at them.”
—Robert Heinlein
On the Writing of Speculative Fiction

Once upon a time, a writer could actually make a living writing short stories that were published in magazines. That era was well before the internet, DVDs, and even before Gilligan’s Island began airing on TV. Not to point the blame to Gilligan and the gang on the S.S. Minnow, but around 1963 seems to be when the shift happened. There was a major cultural shift in the United States. In 1963, Bob Dylan sang on TV for the first time (Blowing in the Wind), Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The next year the Beatles came to America for the first time, the Civil Rights Act became law, and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution ramped up U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Then, to quote the theme song from Gilligan’s Island, “the weather started getting rough.” Television was ready to take the main stage capturing “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” From the rise of Muhammad Ali to the fall of Saigon.

No competitor ever gave publishers as many fretful hours as television, which grew rapidly in the postwar boom. Expenditures on television advertising — network, spot, and local — climbed from virtually nothing in the late 1940s to more than $1.7 billion in 1963 … . When magazine profits declined in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many observers were quick to blame the trouble on television.” 
—T. Peterson
Advertising Age, 1980

That was a bad time of transition to be a short story writer dependent on income from magazines. But fast forward 60 years and there are ways that writers are making new inroads to getting their stories told. There are writers getting a following on blogs and podcasts, and raising funds through places like Patreon and GoFundMe. Writers are self-publishing their print, digital, and audio books easier than ever. Andy Weir is the success story of a guy who had a two-decade career as a software engineer before becoming a full timer writer. Weir just starting freely writing a serialized version of a book on his website until the demand was strong enough to self-publish on Amazon Kindle. That turned into the best selling book The Martian, that also become the hit movie of the the same name starring Matt Damon. How’d he do it?

He started writing.

He finished what he wrote.

He self-published it. (And its success led to it being published by Penguin Random House and becoming a New York Times bestseller.)

He started writing the next book.

P.S. Hearing Gaiman’s talk about his book The Ocean at the End of the Lane made me just purchase that audio book. A fantasy story, rooted in his childhood, that he says is a lie that tells the truth. A book that started as a short story and just grew. If you’ve never heard Gaiman’s literal voice, here’s a talk I found online titled How Stories Last.

Related post:

The four most important words that every storyteller wants to hear to know that their story is working (According to Neil Gaiman)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

”What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
—Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing

”The act of writing shows movement, activity, life.”
—William Faulkner 

Last week, I came across a 2001 talk Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) gave titled “Telling the Truth.” Bradbury starting writing every day when he was 12, and by the time he died at age 91 he left behind of sea of work. And his inspiration and influence was vast—including his short story The Rocket Man laying the foundation for the Elton John & Bernie Taupin hit song Rocket Man.

In the 54 minute talk below Bradbury includes this simple to grasp—but hard to follow—advice for those who want to be better writers in one year. It basically boils down to just doing two things:

1) Read one short story every day. (Bonus points for adding an essay and a poem.)

2) Write one short story every week.

That’s it. There’s no guarantee you’ll be a rich and famous writer—or even a published one—after 52 weeks. But Bradbury thinks that after reading 365 short stories and writing 52 short stories that you will be a better writer. So if you’ve spent a year or more just trying to finish a novel or a screenplay, try Bradbury’s approach. Bradbury did not go to college—but to paraphrase Tarantino (who did not even finish high school)—he went to books. One could argue that the Achilles heel of academia and writing workshops is the overanalytical approach.

Stephen King in his book On Writing has a hilarious description of how advice from other writers can turn into a non-constructive feeding frenzy. King also has a quote in that book that fits in nicely to this post.

”If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
—Stephen King
On Writing, page 145

If you’re writing a short story every week, you are not really concerned what your professors and peers think. You’re just cranking out stories 2,000—5,000 words at a time. Maybe sneak in some 5-1,500 word flash fiction pieces to give yourself a break. Bradbury believed that beginning and intermediate writers benefited from writing short stories. And he wasn’t concerned with the quality of the writing at the start as much as he was just the practice of writing. And he added, “I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”

I don’t know how many bad short stories Bradbury wrote, but I do know it took him years to get the first one published. When the dust settled on his career he wrote screenplays, TV programs, and over 50 books.

P.S. I thankfully have close access to three libraries so I picked up the above books last week. I grabbed a bunch to immerse myself again in short stories, and I’ll write some reflections here from time to time. Neil Gaiman says, “Good stories should change you.” That’s asking a lot. But you probably have a few stories that you’ve read, heard, or saw that did in fact change you in some way. One that I recall was one I read when I was 19 years old. It was Irwin Shaw’s short story The Eighty-Yard Run. It’s why I dedicated my book to Annye Refoe, the professor who assigned that reading in class.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

I know there are more serious issues going on in the world at the moment, but if you need a smile today here are a few photos of my new dog that graced our home this weekend. A new chapter begins.

P.S. Two of my favorite dog films are Marley and Me (2008) and My Dog Skip (2000).

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

We all know that it’s conflict really that makes drama happen. It’s not just a slice of life that you’re doing.”
—India-born writer/director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding)
MasterClass, Lecture 3

Salaam Bombay!

It’s possible that I’ve written more about the importance of conflict in drama more than any other subject. It’s why I chose the first chapter of my book to be on conflict. Here are a handful of posts over the years that unpack that some more if you want to do a deep dive.

Conflict—Conflict—Conflict

The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle

Neil Simon on Conflict

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

Conflict is at the root of everything from Shakespeare to Hamilton to Looney Tunes:

”Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
From Henry the IV

”There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it.”
Say No to This (from Hamilton) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

“I like to swing upon my perch and sing a little song,
But there’s a cat that’s after me and won’t leave me alone.”
—Tweety Bird

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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