Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Mackendrick’

Though more of a directing rather than a screenwriting device, “sweeping the floor” is a phrase used to describe an  action given to an actor so their lines appear more natural. Sometimes an actor with a short scene or just one line wants to give more importance to their small part so they put too much emphasis on their small role. “Sweeping the floor” helps the actor concentrate on the activity (and, of course, it doesn’t have to be a literal sweeping the floor action) and the result is often a more natural performance. This works for better actors in bigger roles as well.

When Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) first meets Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street director Oliver Stone uses many variations of “sweeping the floor” in that one scene. Gekko talks on the phone (a couple of times), lights  a cigarette, checks his blood pressure, flips through his mail/messages, and ends the scene hopping on a treadmill in his office. It’s an important five-minute scene and all of those activities help push the scene forward.

“For a more ingenious example of the same device look at one of the love scenes between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront. It is reasonably well written, but might have seemed over saturated if the actors had played it while looking at each other directly. Instead Brando uses a couple of props, one of which is a child’s swing in the playground of the park where the scene takes place. Incongruously he sits in the swing, giving a slightly self-depreciation tone to his performance. The other prop is the glove the girl has dropped. Brando picks it up and does not return it, absent-mindedly trying it on his own much larger hand. This purely incidental activity means that for much of the dialogue he avoids eye contact with her. Because of this the scene is less sentimental and creates an impression of unpretentious and natural screen presence (though it is, needless to say, just as contrived and premeditated as any other piece of acting).
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of Directing

Once you become aware of the “sweeping the floor” device you see it everywhere. People sitting down talking eye to eye the whole time happens more in low-budget indie films than in real life. That’s why experienced directors have actors doing things even if the scene isn’t written that way.

What’s your favorite “sweeping the floor” movie example?

Scott W. Smith

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“How does one persuade an audience to put aside its normally critical approach to subject matter and willingly collaborate with the storyteller in accepting as logical what is plainly incredible, nonsensical and/or absurd? The phrase ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ comes to mind.”
Alexander Mackendrick

Them!, a 1954 American science-fiction film, is absolute and unashamed hokum. It is simple-minded to the point of absurdity, and nobody is likely to regard it as a work of serious cinema. It is also, at another level, a classic. If there had been an attempt to treat its subject matter with any subtlety, the result would have been a certain disaster. But Them! us worth some study, I suggest, because it demonstrates how our ‘disbelief’ can easily, ‘suspend’ with some degree of ‘willingness’. One of the easiest ways to learn the carpentry of solid, simple plot mechanisms of any kind of cinema is by careful dismantling and re-assembly of a piece of nonsense like Them!…It is sound practice when devising an incredible story to do a great deal of research on all other associated aspects of the situation. Them! actually devotes quite a lot of footage to earnestly real, and entirely accurate, explanations of how ant colonies function. Everything except the initial premise is logical and real.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
(And in his book Mackendrick does spend a couple of paragraphs expounding on Them!)

P.S. I saw Them! on Tv when I was a little kid and it’s always been a guilty pleasure of mine, but I’ve never once heard anybody but Mackendrick bring the movie up in a filmmaking or screenwriting book. For The Shawshank Redemption fans the bonus of Them! is it stars James Whitmore.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Remember that scripts are not so much written as rewritten and rewritten and rewritten (Mark Twain’s rule for writing: ‘Apply seat of pants to chair’). During a period of nearly ten years when I was under contract to a British studio, first as a contract screenwriter, then later as a writer/director, a pattern emerged. Every screenplay that finally became a film was rewritten a minimum of five and a maximum of seven times. There was no explicit rule about this, nobody could explain why it became standard practice—it just worked out that way. Another noticeable pattern was that many subjects did not even reach screenplay form at all and were scrapped after the first draft (while a script that required too many re-writes was usually abandoned after the seventh draft.) So plunge ahead regardless. Don’t wait to get it right, just get it written.”
Writer/Director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
On Film-making edited by Paul Cronin

Related links:
Writing & Rewriting “Pretty Woman” (Part 1)
Writing & Rewriting “Pretty Woman” (Part 2)
Coppola and Rewriting
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)

Scott W. Smith

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“Exposition is BORING unless it is in the context of some present dramatic tension or crisis. So start with an action that creates tension, then provide the exposition in terms of the present development.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making

William M. Akers in Your Screenplay Sucks! points out a great example of creating tension then giving exposition from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid when they’re working as payroll guards:

“Their boss gets shot and they hide behind some rocks. They end up in a face off, with Butch and Sundance holding pistols on a double handful of fearsome looking bandits. 

Butch Cassidy: Kid, there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before.
Sundance Kid: One hell of a time to tell me!

A great way to reveal significant information, and, in a crowded theater, it got a gigantic laugh.”  

Related posts:

Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip # 38)
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip #10)
Cody on Expo

Scott W. Smith

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“I believe film more than any other medium, is capable of exploring feelings…Cinema hits us at a gut level—its impact is sensory and physical. Drama has, from its early beginnings, aimed at a catharsis that the ancient Greeks felt would cleanse the human spirit through emotions of pity and terror.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers)
On Film-making

Related posts: 40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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The man in this case  was writer/director Alexander Mackendrick, and what he walked way from way making movies in Hollywood.  Here’s a documentary about the films Mackendrick made and how he turned to teaching at CalArts—a school founded by Walt Disney.


Scott W. Smith

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“One of the essential components of drama is tension…Drama, so said drama critic William Archer, is almost always the effect of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty.'”
Alexander Mackendrick

“We knew no time for sadness, that’s a road we each had crossed.”
Pieces of April
Lyrics by Dave Loggins, recorded by Three Dog Night

“Passivity in a character is a real danger to dramatic values. ‘Protagonist’ (the name given to the leading character in your story) literally means the person who initiates the agon (struggle). But a figure who does not (or cannot) actually do things or who hasn’t got the gumption to struggle in a way that produces new situations and developments is apt—in dramatic terms—to be dead weight on the narrative. In effect, a bore.”
Writer/ director Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
Page 11

I wish when I was younger someone would have explained that the word protagonist flowed from the Greek word agōn, and basically meant struggle.  (The word agony also has roots in agōn.) I used to prefer the term hero to protagonist. But thinking of your main character as the one who struggles—and the antagonist as the one struggling against your main character—conjurers up powerful imagery.

The Olympic Games started in Greece so here’s a good visual of wrestling in Ancient Greece that also symbolically represents modern screenwriting.  (Think of if as Screenwriting from Greece.)


Keep in mind that while the struggle can be as grand as saving the world (Deep Impact), it can also be as simple as cooking a turkey (Pieces of April). In fact, the micro-budget Pieces of April written and directed by Peter Hedges is a good example of having a character struggling on many levels. April (Katie Holmes) not only struggles to find a place to cook her Thanksgiving dinner after her oven breaks, but she struggles with her neighbors, her boyfriend, her family, society, herself—she even has conflict with the salt and pepper shakers.

In fact, if you’re looking for a film school for under forty bucks pick up Mackendrick’s On-Filmmaking, a used copy of Seven Famous Greek Plays (introduction by Eugene O’Neil),  and the DVD of Pieces of April (which has a commentary by Hedges). Pieces of April is tour de force of quality writing and acting.

P.S. If you’re new to screenwriting then today is your lucky day. Because if you can simply do two things in your screenwriting— 1) Have an active protagonist, and 2) Have a level of tension/conflict in every scene—you will have a heads-up on most scripts written. Any script readers out there want to say what percentage of screenplays they’ve read where two major problems were passive characters and lack of conflict?

Related post:
Don’t Bore the Audience!
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Meet Your First Audience (Tip #36)

Scott W. Smith 

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