Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Jr.’

“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation

“You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
William Holden VO in Sunset Blvd.

Last night I watched The Holiday listening to the director’s commentary by writer/director Nancy Meyers and she mentioned that while writing The Holiday that she watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment three times. I haven’t quoted Wilder in a while so now is as good a time as any unearth another one from the great six-time Oscar winner.

In some circles having voice-over narration is taboo, but Wilder didn’t shy away from it. Heck, Wilder (and additional writers  Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) in Sunset Blvd. even had a dead guy give VO. And the writers won an Oscar for the story. Granted that was 60 years ago, but is voice-over narration really sloppy writing?

What about these films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Forrest Gump
Days of Heaven
Taxi Driver
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Big Lebowski
Election
A Christmas Story
Goodfellas
Stand by Me
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty
The Princess Bride
Double Indemnity

 

Unless someone changed the definition of sloppy writing there isn’t a whole lot of fat in those films. And just for good measure, Nancy Meyers is fond of using voice-over narration and she’s the most successful female box office money-making director. And she takes her lead in the voice-over department from Wilder.

“In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s sreenwriting tips as told to Cameron Crowe

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Subtext is what the character is really saying beneath and between the lines. Often characters don’t understand themselves. They’re often not direct and don’t say what they mean. We might say that subtext is all about underlying drives and meanings that are not apparent to the character, but that are apparent to the audience or reader.”
Linda Seger
Creating Unforgettable Characters
page 148

“If two characters say  ‘I love you’ and mean it, the scene is over. In other words, a story must have a subtext. Subtext is what lies beneath the text. It can be the underlying meaning of a story, the subconscious motives of a character, or what is really going on moment by moment in the scene.”
Linda Stuart
Getting Your Script Through the Hollywood Maze
Page 90

By adding the prefix sub (under, below) to a word changes the meaning of the root word.  A submarine is able to go under the water—sometimes deep under water. Writing good subtext in a screenplay is writing dialogue and scenes that are beneath the surface. Sometimes deep below the surface. Sometimes it takes multiple viewings of a film for you to catch the subtext.

I first heard the term subtext in an acting class years ago. Actors love to play the subtext of a scene. You can give an actor a line like, “I’m going to miss you,” and they can play it ten different ways.

A very simple example of subtext is in the movie Juno when Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are contemplating what color they’re going to paint their nursery for the baby they are adopting. At the end of the page and a half scene Mark says, “I think it’s too early to paint. That’s what I think.” On the surface he seems to me saying, “Let’s wait until we know if it’s a boy or a girl and then decide on the color.”

But it’s really two short sentences packed with subtext. And as you read the Diablo Cody script. or watch the movie, the story unfolds a little more and you know exactly what was really going through Mark’s mind.

Sometimes, like in that case from Juno, the subtext isn’t recognized until later in the film. And sometimes the subtext is instantly recognized by the audience like the 70s guilty pleasure Smokey and the Bandit when Burt Reynolds says, “I only take my hat off for one thing….”

One of my favorite scene of subtext is in Cast Away, written by William Broyles, Jr. (Technically it’s two or three scenes, but one just spills over from the house to the garage to the jeep.) It’s toward the end of the movie when Tom Hanks has returned after years of being stranded on an island and is going to meet his old love (Helen Hunt).  Like most people she believed he was killed in the plane crash and is now married with children.

It’s a tender scene that in the script goes on for six pages as they talk about everything but their relationship; The weather, her kids, the Tennessee Titans almost winning the Super Bowl, where the search parties looked for him—everything but their relationship. Finally Hank’s says, “I should have never got on that plane.” That revelation is too powerful for Hunt to deal with so she changes the subject to take him to the garage where she still has his old jeep.

He says, “You kept the car? She says, “I kept everything.” The scene plays on and no one is talking about the elephant in the room; they still love each other. At one point they pause and look into each other’s eyes and it’s subtext without any text. Finally, Hunt says “Right back. You said you’d be right back.” They open up and proclaim their love for each other which is all the more agonizing because she has another family she is committed to. Great writing full of conflict, and full of subtext.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“The Wilder message is don’t bore – don’t bore people.”
                                                    Billy Wilder

 

By the time Billy Wilder directed Sunset Boulevard he had already worked on over 40 feature films. He had already been nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two for his work on The Lost Weekend. It’s safe to say that Wilder knew what he was doing when he made Sunset Boulevard which would bring him another Oscar as one of the movie’s three writers.  A few years ago when the Writer’s Guild of America picked the best 101 screenplays of all-time they listed Sunset Boulevard at #7.

So just in case you aren’t that familiar with the film I wanted you to know the importance of the script and film. If you’ve read the post Screenwriting by the Numbers you’ll see how Sunset Boulevard perfectly fits the classic three-act structure. Heck, Wilder even fades to black so the audience doesn’t miss the act breaks. (A nod to the theater when the curtain would go down at act breaks.) 

Here’s my breakdown of the movie and how it measures up with some things I’ve written about in the past. (It’s best read if you’ve seen the film because there are some spoilers mentioned. And this is a film that every writer should watch multiple times.)

Sunset Boulevard has 57 scenes. (40-60 is average for most feature films.)

Sunset Boulevard runs 110 minutes. Which averages around 2 minutes a scene. (Most features tend to run 90-120 minutes.)

Only three scenes are over three minutes in length and they are saved for key moments. (If characters move from one part of the house to the next and it’s a different camera set-up I mark that as a scene break.) 

There are two main characters (Norma Desmond & Joe Gillis). 

William Holden, who plays Gillis, is in almost every scene in the film. (“Stay with the money” is the old Hollywood saying.)

There are three reoccurring supporting characters  (Max, Nancy, Artie).

Except for the long voice-overs of Joe Gillis, most dialogue is three lines or less. 

There are three acts. Act 1 ends at 26:51, Act 2 ends at 75:48 min., and Act 3 ends, of course, at the end of the film 110 minutes. (Though the script does indicate they worked in five different sequences marking them “A,” “B”, “C”, “D” and “E.” so one could argue a five-act structure.)

There is one main story (Gillis writing Norma’s script and becoming a boy toy in the process) and three subplots. The subplot with Nancy ties directly to the main plot and the climax of the film. The youthful Nancy new to Hollywood also offers a contrast to Norma, the aging movie star.

Almost every scene has conversation with three people or less. 

A good amount of the scenes are just two people talking.

Norma’s house is one giant set piece and where most of the story takes place.

The film is a mix of drama, comedy, action, satire, melodrama and film noir.

Gillis’ lack of work and money sets the story in motion. (Read the post Gordon Gekko vs. Paul Newman)

The title is literal and metaphorical as it is the name of a street in L.A. where Norma lives and sunset also represents her fading career/life. “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.”

Contrasts is used throughout the film;  interior/exterior scenes, day/night scenes, theme of rich/poor, old/young, small apartment/huge mansion.

Coincidence is used early in the film to put Gillis at Norma’s house.

Exposition is sprinkled throughout the film with Max’s little secret coming when toward the end of the film when it would have most impact.

The ending is ironic. Gillis gets his pool and Norma gets back in the spotlight. Though what they get is not in the way they thought they’d get it.  He’s dead and she’s off to jail. (On top of that her desired close-up is out of focus.)

Of course, it was the solid writing during the 110 minutes that sets the film a part. That is the hard part. But I did want to show you the simplicity of limiting characters and locations as the writers Charles Brackett, D.M Marshman, Jr, and Wilder did on their way to creating screen magic. 

The bottom line is study the masters.

Bonus low-budget production tip; To get the famous shot of Joe Gillis floating face down dead in the pool with the police looking down on him was shot by placing a mirror in the pool under the floating body and shooting down into the mirror.  They found that having a water temp of 40 degrees added the right mix of visual clarity with a hint of distortion. 

 

copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: