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Posts Tagged ‘Carl Gottieb’

“Surely the most famous life line in classic storytelling is the glass slipper.”
Wells Root (referring to Cinderella)

Your character has a goal or a problem that needs solved—what they ultimately need to achieve that goal is a life line.

Do you remember in the movie Jaws when the Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) was facing imminent death at the end of the movie? It’s a scene of high drama. It’s a you or me face-off and it looks like Brody is on the losing end with a shark…until he reaches for a life line.

From the Peter Benchley script (this draft only has his name on it) at page 112:

Brody is sliding toward (the shark) with the rest of the debris as the bow raises thirty degrees. He intercepts one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks and just as he and everything else pours toward the whirlpool and into the jaws Brody braces himself and shoves the tanks at the bottomless pit. They jam between the upper and lower jaws and stick fast.

But where did these compressed air tanks come from? The tanks are loaded on Quint’s (Robert Shaw) boat on page 79. They are intended for diving by Hooper, but just so we know the power and danger of the tanks Benchley writes a little exposition.

Quint almost trips over Hooper’s tanks as he walks to the chum barrels. He roughly kicks them aside.

Quint
Fancy goddamn toys….

Hooper
(jumping up)
Careful! Compressed air — you crack that and it explodes like a bomb!

It’s a quick exchange that doesn’t draw attention to itself. So now let’s fast forward to page 112 of the 113 page script. Brody has tossed the tanks in the shark’s mouth. That’s the set-up and now the payoff. Benchley writes (major spoiler coming):

The shark twists backward in the water and turns away. Hooper, rising, is peering around for Brody and Quint. The shark is spinning in crazed circles, the head-thrusts indicating that it can neither dislodge nor swallow the silver tanks. It bites down at fifteen tons pressure per square inch. The TANKS EXPLODE!

Now Spielberg (or Benchley, or additional credited writer Carl Gottieb, or even somebody else) said something like, “Yeah, technically Brody got the shark, but what if we raised the stakes? What if we put victory or defeat in the hands of Brody? Wouldn’t that be a more satisfactory ending than the shark basically killing himself? Brody is a cop, he knows how to shoot a gun. We laughed at him for pulling out his pistol at one point and trying to shoot this giant killer shark. ‘ But what if he falls back on his marksmanship and takes a rifle and has to shoot the compressed air tanks wedged in the sharks teeth or he’s a dead man?” The audiences will be thinking ‘Good luck. That’s not going to work.’ The shark gets closer and closer. Brody pulls himself together, concentrates, fires…and boom The TANK EXPLODES.”

That’s what happens in the movie. The box office exploded as well. And some would say that Jaws was the film that changed American movies forever. With a great big assist by a great life line.

In the book Writing the Script (which happened to be published in 1979—the same year as Syd Field’s Screenplay) Wells Root writes;

“This life line, therefore, is whatever device you can use to resolve your hero or heroine’s problem…But the technique has certain strict limitations. It must be logical. Not cloud-built or contrived. It should not be just wild luck, such as a lightning bolt killing the heavy or a flash flood drowning all the escaping bandits. Your life line should not be deus ex machina. That is latin for ‘a god from the machine.'”

So give your character a life line, but always remember to set it up properly so we’re not reading your script or watching your moving and reacting with a uniform bewildered look as we bury our face in our hands.

And just for the record, life lines tend to have the most impact when what’s at stake is life or death. (What’s at Stake? Tip #9)

What are some of your favorite movie life lines?

Scott W. Smith

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