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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.)

Ancient-wrestling

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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“What Sandy [Alexander] Mackendrick did for myself and my classmates was he was the first cold water we were hit with and he prepared us how to face the business.”
CalArts film student

“Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling.”
Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E)
(And CalArts Grad)

“One of the tasks of the director as he transfers a screenplay to the medium of the moving-image-with-sound is almost to forget what the characters are saying and reimagine their behavior as being mute, so that all thoughts, feelings and impulses are conveyed to the audience through sound and vision—without speech. There is a curious paradox here, for when a scene has been reconstituted in this fashion the director is often able to reincorporate elements of the original dialogue in ways that make it vastly more effective. Moreover, when a script has been conceived in genuinely cinematic terms, its sparse dialogue is likely to be free of the task of exposition and will consequently be much more expressive.”
Alexander Mackendrick
On Film-making
page 6

A great example of feelings and emotions conveyed without dialogue is in Cast Away (2000) written by William Broyles Jr. and directed by Robert Zemeckis. At a big holiday family dinner, Chuck (Tom Hanks) looks down at his pager and then glances across the table at his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) and her expression says it all, like—”You’re not going out of town on Christmas?”

It’s a quick moment and a simple one, but one that is so core to the story. Of course, Hanks is later cast away on an island following a plane crash, but there’s a sense that he is casting away the relationship with his girlfriend for his job commitments. The moment is captured in six quick shots without a single spoken word. I couldn’t find the scene online, but it’s a great example of what Mackendrick said about conveying “thoughts, feelings and impulses” without dialogue.

Related posts:
Show, Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?)  “IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.”
“Storytelling without Dialogue” (Tip #82) 

Scott W. Smith

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Today I’ll start a series of posts on Alexander Mackendrick. He directed Sweet Smell of Success and received an Oscar nomination as one of the writers of The Man in the White Suit.  Frustrated with the Hollywood studio system he turned to teaching at CalArts, where he was Dean of its School of Film from 1969 to 1993. (Despite only formally having one year of study at the Glasgow School of Art on his academic resume and being 60 years old when he taught his first class. What he did have was a 30 year filmmaking career.)

Mackenrdrick believed that student films were either “too long” or “much too long,” and used an egg timer as students pitched their stories to the class. He had a passion for craft and taught film as a popular art.

After he died in 1993 and Paul Cronin edited his teachings into the book On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director.  And if all of the above is not enough to get you interested in Mackendrick, here’s what Martin Scorsese wrote in the forward of On Film-making, “This book —this invaluable book—is the work of a lifetime, from a man who was passionately devoted to his craft and his art, and who then devoted himself to transferring his knowledge and his experience to his students, And now it’s available to all of us. What a gift.”

It’s a great book that I haven’t given the proper attention on this blog. So as I attempt to mak up for lost time, here’s a taste of Mackendrick’s teachings:

“Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education.”

“Though it will only be a couple of weeks before you are familiar with the basic mechanics of filmmaking it will take a lifetime of hard work to master them.”

“It has been said that the director is like the orchestra conductor, a maestro who must be able to play every instrument competently. Unlikely as it is that you will ever discover real ability in all three fields of directing, writing and acting, I believe you will not be even competent in any single one without a basic comprehension of the other two.”

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Mackendrick)
Learning from Others (Tip #42)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the characters….What in Suspense would be anxiety about outcome and fear for the protagonist’s well being, in Dramatic Irony becomes dread of the moment the character discovers what we already know and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.”
Robert McKee
Story
Page 351

“It occurs to me that the device of dramatic irony is so standard a formula of dramatic construction that, in truth, it is quite rare to find any really well-structured story that does not make use of it. Think of the stories you have encountered where we, the audience,  are aware of circumstances of which of the onstage characters are ignorant and are thus kept in a state of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty’ as we wait for some turn of events (peripeteia*) in which the suspenseful situation is resolved. Can you think of any dramatic work that does not make use of this structure, however indirectly? It seems to me that as students’ projects are offered to me, it is the absence of clearly structured dramatic irony (especially in visual terms) that is their weakness. There is a sense in which the most basic elements of film grammar have potential for dramatic irony…As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.’”
Alexander Mackendrick (Former director—Sweet Smell of Success—and one time dean of California Institute of the Arts)
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
Pages 93-94

P.S. “The bomb under the table” is a famous Hitchcock illustration found in the above video, and in the Francis Truffaut book Hitchcock.

*Peripeteia: a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation especially in a literary work (Merriam-Webster)

Related post:
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)
Irony Playground
Dramatic Irony (Ibsen & Shakespeare)
Dramatic Irony (Paul Lucey)

Scott W. Smith

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