Posts Tagged ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’

“I don’t know if any studio would make Butch Cassidy today.”
William Goldman

When I was a kid there was a place in Florida called Six Gun Territory that was an old west theme park near Ocala. They had a rail road, a saloon complete with can-can dancers, old-time photo studio, and most importantly they staged bank robberies and shootouts in the street. I still remember being around 9-years-old and the feel and the sound of walking on the gravel streets wearing cowboy boots.

I have many fond memories of that place and even shot my first 16mm film there. I remember ending that film paying homage to The Great Train Robbery by ending with a shot of a gunfighter shooting into the camera for no other reason than I thought it looked cool.

Every time I watch the opening scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I think of Six Gun Territory. I don’t know if that was the first movie I ever saw set in the old west but I know it’s the one I go back to the most. It’s also the second highest rated western (after High Noon) on AFI’s top 100 films (1997) joining just a handful of other  Westerns that  made the list (Shane, Stagecoach, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven).

Paul Newman and Robert Redford speaking screenwriter William Goldman’s words—that’s great stuff.  It took Goldman eight years to write the script which paid him a record fee up to that date of $400,000.  He also took home the Oscar for the 1970 film.

I sometimes watch favorite films with the sound off to get a different perspective. The movie holds up well without the great banter (“Think you used enough dynamite there Butch?”) With the sound off you follow the story easily and it plays as a visually stunning action film. (Though personally I could do without the trendy zoom lens shots.)

On this viewing I also realized that it perfectly matches Goldman’s “stay with the money” theory. Studios pay actors a lot of money, because audiences pay money to see stars. How many scenes do you think there are in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that don’t include Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and/or the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford)? The grand total is…zero. In fact, there is one scene where the town’s men talk about what to do about these bank robbers, and it’s more humorous by having Butch and Sundance listening to the discussion from a hotel balcony. Stay with the money.

“The essential opening labor a screenwriter must execute is, of course, deciding what the proper structure should be for the particular screenplay you are writing. And to do that, you have to know what is absolutely crucial in the telling of your story—what is its spine? Whatever it is, you must protect it to the death…(The theme of  Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is) times are changing, and you have to change with them—if you want to survive.”
William Goldman 

Adventures in the Screen Trade

If I recall my philosophy class correctly, it was Heraclitus who said a long, long time ago that “you can’t step in the same river twice.” I think the times are always changing and that’s a good thing to realize. It was true of the old west, and it’s true of the new west, the Midwest, Key West—wherever you live. “The times they are a-changin’.”

By the way, Six Gun Territory pre-dated Disney World but closed in 1984. The land where it sat is now a strip mall. If you want to survive….

Scott W. Smith

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This weekend I picked up the book Tales from the Script; 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories edited by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman. The book flows from a 105-minute film that is a series of interviews with–I’m guessing 50–screenwriters including Shane Black (Lethal Weapon),  Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Visit the Tales from the Script website to learn about screenings in L.A. and New York in March or to order the DVD which will begin shipping also in March.

The book is full of more quotes that reinforce what I’ve been blogging about here for the last two years. I’ll pull a few quotes from it this week beginning right here:

“The first screenplay you write is rarely going to be sold and made into a movie, but it might be a good sample to get you hired to write something else. I probably wrote a dozen scripts before I ever got paid to do one.”
Screenwriter Mick Garris (The Stand, Amazing Stories, Master of Horror)

Scott W. Smith

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William Goldman is a great writer. And a pretty good prophet.

His book Adventures in the Screen Trade was one of the first books I read about the movie business. And I read it when it first came out back in 1983 when I was living in Burbank and lusting after that Kaypro II computer that was going to help me buy a house in Malibu.

I never did get a Kaypro II and here I am in Iowa. 

But I have read (and flipped through) Adventures in the Screen Trade so many times its spine is broken in three places. It looks kinda how you’d imagine Billy Graham’s bible to look like.

Goldman is another Chicago-born writer, who also just happened to win two Oscars for the screenplays All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  He also wrote the scripts for The Princess Bride and Misery. He could afford a house in Malibu, but he lives instead in New York City.

Goldman’s book is full of insights and wisdom from the inside. I’ll avoid his more commonly quoted writings in favor of this one:

      “There’s a whole world of subject matter that will never be touched by the major studios. Because the executives know the sort of film that may work.  Just like the bright boys in Detroit knew, a while back, that what the American public really wanted was a great big glossy gas-guzzling car. And all that interest that was starting in Japanese cars?
     Just another nonrecurring phenomenon….”
                                              William Goldman
                                               Adventures in the Screen Trade
                                              Page 52

It’s interesting that he wrote that over 25 years ago. You’d think Detroit would have learned something in that time. And it’s interesting that I read that yesterday when it was announced that car sales in December were down more than a third ending the weakest year in over a decade. Chrysler had sales drop by 53 present. I’m guessing my Durango SUV is worth just a little more than a Kaypro II. 

And you’d think Hollywood studios would have learned something in that time. And maybe they have on the distribution side with the success of independent films over the years. And fortunately today there are many other ways today  to get those films made that normally wouldn’t be touched by major studios. And once the Internet-driven distribution door opens up for independent filmmakers then the winds of change that rocked the music industry will happen throughout the land.

And for that reason you should keep writing about subject matters you are passionate about.  And check out the post
Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl in Ohio.


copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

Bonus Kaypro hacker quote from the movie The Score:  “Give me a Kaypro 64 and a dialtone and I can do anything.”

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“Primary exposition is telling and showing to the audience the time and place of the story, the names and relationships of the characters, and the nature of the conflict.”
Irwin R. Blacker
The Elements of Screenwriting

“Within the first pages of a screenplay a reader can judge the relative skill of the writer simply by noting how he handles exposition.”
Robert McKee

Dramatically speaking exposition is simply the way you convey information.

Consider these facts:

I share a birthday with Slim Pickens.

I was born the same year as George Clooney, Meg Ryan, Michael J. Fox, Melissa Etheridge, Peter Jackson, Heather Locklear, Enya and Barack Obama.

I graduated from high school the same year and just a few miles away from the high school Wesley Snipes graduated from.

Not that I lump myself in with those well known people (okay, I just did — but let’s just say I’m not well-known or as accomplished like those mentioned) but I want to show you a form of exposition. I wasn’t totally on the nose with the above exposition but it gives you a ballpark of how old I am. (Old, but not that old. Come on, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow and Jon Bon Jovi are just a year or two behind me.) If you wanted to, with a little research you could put all the pieces together.

Exposition works best in films when sprinkled here and there and doesn’t feel like exposition.

Think of exposition like exposure in photography. It reveals a subject. When you take a picture of someone on film you expose a part of them. Every angle gives you a little different exposure or insight into the person. In a close up you might see a small scar on their face, from the side you may see a tattoo on their arm, and from behind you might see their hair is thinning.

In compelling portrait photos you’re exposing someone and giving little glimpses of who the person is. In your screenwriting it’s best if your exposition is almost invisible so the audience doesn’t feel they are being spoon-feed info.

In real life people are constantly giving us exposition. Two pieces of real life expo that come to mind were in the form of a warning about other people. The first one came years ago when I was young and began a job wide-eyed and excited. A fellow who had been at the company a few years warned me about the president of the company; “Be careful there is a trail of broken relationships behind him.”

That was a great bit of exposition given in a way that was fresh and allowed me to fill in the blanks without knowing the details. Another person I worked with said of someone we knew, “I know there is a good person in there wanting to come out.” Great line.

And a fellow I once interviewed for a video told me, “The memories of my father could be put on the back of a postage stamp.” That one lines says lot more than a typical movie scene than dumping a two-minute monologue on what a bad a father he had.

This week keep track of how exposition is given to you in real life and in movies and TV shows you watch. Detective shows on TV are some of the worst at dumping exposition on an audience because they have to front load so much information because they need to grab your attention early so you know what’s going on before you change the channel. 
”Okay, we think Joe did this because his girlfriend just broke up with him and he lost his job at the factory where he works and he has a hunting rifle that uses the same caliber bullet that was used in the murder.” Then they often dump more exposition right at the end to explain all the details of why such and such happened.

Consider these great lines from movies that convey exposition in an excellent way:

“What was your Childhood like?”
Escape from Alcatraz

“What do you do with a girl when you’re through with her?”
“I’ve never had a girl.”
An Officer and a Gentleman

“Are you something else I’m going to have to live through?”
Erin Brockovich

In one sentence we get a glimpse that Erin’s been through some crap.

A key to writing good exposition is to only reveal what you have to reveal. We do this in real life. It’s the guy who says after the fifth date when things are getting more serious, “Have I told you I have a kid?”

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid timely exposition comes just before there is going to be a shootout and Butch says to Sundance: “Kid, I think there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before. ” Sundance replies, “One hell of a time to tell me.” And at 90 minutes into the film it is one hell of a time to tell the audience this little bit of exposition. Butch is an outlaw and a bank robber and the admission catches Sundance and the audience off guard.

Films often use exposition early in the film to set the stage as in Jerry Maguire where the Tom Cruise character explains what a sports agent does. (Speaking of Jerry Maguire, I loved how screenwriter Cameron Crowe actually used exposition to avoid the usual spill-your-guts exposition moment when Dorothy tells Jerry, “Let’s not tell all our sad stories.”)

The stuff you have to get out to set up you story is what Blake Snyder calls “laying pipe” and warns that audiences can only stand so much of that before they get bored with the technical jargon.

“Laying Pipe,” is about how much screen time you must use to set up your story. In my opinion, audiences will only stand for so much of that. A good example of “too much pipe” is Minority Report, which does not get going until Minute 40. Why? Because this adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story requires A LOT of pipe! And to me, it torques the whole movie out of shape. So we must be careful. Just because we can lean on the built-in audiences that a beloved novel brings, we have to make sure we create a movie-going experience that resonates for everyone — even those who aren’t familiar with the book.
Blake Snyder

See how well exposition is handled in Man in Black: “What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless, dissolves instantly in liquid, and is among the more deadlier poisons known to man.” Mystery Man on Film says of this line of exposition: “Perfect.  The pipe is laid, the audience knows the name of the poison, its properties, and how it works.  More important, the audience knows how this scene is going to work — one of the men will die from ingesting the poison.”

One reason flashbacks in general are frowned upon in screenplays is because they are often put there to simply be an info dump rather than being integral to the story. But flashbacks and life recaps can be handled well.

In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character says, “Dad was a Yankees fan then so, of course, I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58 the Dodgers moved away so we had to find other things to fight about.” Two lines that sums up his relationship with his father.

“But you have to be careful that your characters are not talking only in order to get information out. If you need to give the audience a bit of information, make sure to give the character his own reason to tell us about it. That’s called making the dialogue organic to the character.”
Alex Epstein
Crafty Screenwriting

“Always ask yourself: Would the character actually say this, or is he only saying it because you need the audience to know some fact or detail? If the answer is the latter, you’re writing exposition and not dialogue. That’s not good.”
John August
Big Fish

Save the best exposition for last. Of course, one of the best examples of this is when Darth Vader says, “Luke, I am your father.” I was at midnight showing in Hollywood when I first heard that line uttered and it was a personal great movie moment. Other great memorable lines of powerful expo are “I see dead people” (The Sixth Sense) and “She’s my sister and my daughter” (Chinatown).

Good exposition doesn’t need to be spoken either. “Show don’t tell” is a popular Hollywood phrase. Films are visual. When Jack Nickelson’s character continually washes his hands in As Good as it Gets we get a hint that he’s a obsessive compulsive neurotic. We don’t need to have him explain to a character why he washes his hands. We don’t need to see a flashback of him growing up in a dirty household where his mother didn’t let him wash his hands in order to save on the water bill.

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character reads books in a room filled with books. We get a clue that he reads a lot. Simple visual exposition.

Sometimes you can use false exposition to lead the characters and audience astray as Norman Bates does in Psycho. Just because someone tells you something (and even believes it themselves) doesn’t mean it’s true.

Subtext is another way of masking exposition. Actors love to talk about playing subtext. That is what is being said beyond the words. Think of the many ways someone can say “I love You” and have it mean so many different things including “I hate you.”

As you’re writing and rewriting your script be aware of how exposition is being conveyed. Make ever effort to make the exposition seamless and is there for a good reason.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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