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“The problem with romantic comedy is really—what keeps two people apart? What insurmountable problem keeps two people apart? And in the modern times it’s very hard to know what that could possibly be since there’s no rules about manners, and if people are married they can get divorced. There’s no class problems the way that there used to be that fueled endless numbers of movies like Stella Dallas all these kinds of  films that turned on things that you can’t turn a movie on anymore. And [Sleepless in Seattle] is a movie in which the two people don’t know each other and that’s how that problem is solved. And it’s actually a very funny way to solve that problem. In You’ve Got Mail they can’t be together because he owns a bookstore that is going to put her out of business— that is a big problem. In many movies people are just engaged to other people, which I always think is a very easy way out of this problem. But Sleepless is kind of amazing, it just assumes that these two people live on other ends of the county and don’t know who the other person is and that’s why they can’t be together. I like that. I think that’s simple & fun. “
Writer/Directr Nora Ephron
Sleepless in Seattle director’s commentary

P.S. Nora Ephon also mentioned a reference film she watched before directing Sleepless in Seattle and how it inspired her to link the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan characters before they even met. “One of the movies I looked at before we shot this was a movie called  And Now My Love by Claude Lelouch. Which is about two people who also don’t meet until the very end of the movie. And what he knows in that movie is that’s he’s going to fall in love with someone who takes three lumps of sugar in her coffee. And what we were trying to come up with was a way that you would know—because of some thing that linked them— how destined they were for each other. And this apple is it as you’ll see later.”

Here’s the first apple scene. (Note the simplicity of this two-minute scene. One actress and one take.)

That scene later connects with a scene where Tom Hanks’ young son says of his dead mother, “I’m starting to forget her.” Hanks hugs him and says, “She could peel an apple in one long curly strip. The whole apple.”  I think that would qualify as what T.S. Eliot called an objective correlative. (And when that scene ends with the Joe Cocker version of Bye, Bye Blackbird it’s one powerfully emotional scene.)

No one seems to love or understand me
And all the hard luck stories they keep handing me
Where somebody shines the light
I’m coming on home tonight
1926 song Bye, Bye Blackbird
Composer Ray Henderson/ lyricist Mort Dixon

Recommended reading: Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit

Related links:
40 Days of Emotions
Making Sleepless in Seattle

Scott W. Smith

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“A word that was very important to me when I was making the movie was timeless.”
Director Nora Ephron on making Sleepless in Seattle

“While my informal and unscientific Twitter poll revealed that When Harry Met Sally might be Nora’s most beloved film, I think Sleepless in Seattle is my favorite. I often think about it as a reminder that we can be creative and clever with structure.”
Script reader Amanda Pendolino
Writing Advice from Nora Ephron 

Even if you don’t like mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies, there is much to appreciate about Sleepless in SeattleAfterall it not only made more than $250 million back when it was released in 1993, but it’s listed as one of AFI’s top ten romantic comedy of all-time. A list that includes City Lights, Annie Hall, The Philadelphia Story and When Harry Met Sally. (That last film was co-written by Nora Ephron, the director/co-writer of Sleepless in Seattle, reminding us of how talented she was.)

After her recent death, I revisited the director’s commentary of Sleepless in Seattle and it’s a great example of the collaborative filmmaking process. So in just under 1,500 words here are some take aways from Nora that I hope will make you a better writer and/or filmmaker.

Screenplay
Nora is very open on the Sleepless in Seattle commentary that she was “one of several  screenwriters who worked on it.” The original script written by Jeff Arch, then an English teacher in Virginia, was a romantic drama. That script found its way to producer Gary Foster, who in a 1993 LA Times article said, “I got choked up a few times and was real touched by it. I took it to TriStar and we were lucky enough to get it optioned.”

Oscar-winning screenwriter David S. Ward (The Sting) was brought on to do a version and the third credited writer on the script was Nora. But according the commentary, after the film was greenlit Nora brought her sister Delia (credited as Associate Producer) in to punch up the comedy in the script, the kids roles, and improve the Tom Hanks character.

And even that isn’t the end of it as Nora mentions how Hanks himself, and actors Victor Garber and Rob Reiner, all used improv to add more humor. Nora even credits the producer Foster with writing the baseball/Baltimore bit about, “Everyone thinks Brooks Robinson is the greatest.” (A nice subtle touch of credibility for those who remember the Baltimore Orioles third baseman whose nickname was “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.”)

Cinematography
A standard practice in Hollywood is to team a new director with a seasoned director of photography (DP). This was Nora’s second feature, but her first bigger Hollywood-budgeted film. The DP for Sleepless in Seattle was Sven Nykvist. He was born in Sweden in 1922  making him 70-years-old when he shot the film. By then he had long been considered one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. (In his 2006 obituary in the New York Times it stated that Nykvist, “became the first European cinematographer accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers.)

He had won a couple of Oscars for his work on two Ingmar Bergman films, Fanny and Alexander (1982) and Cries & Whisper (1972). But he also shot Crimes and Misdemeanors (directed by Woody Allen), Chaplin (directed by Richard Attenborough), Pretty Baby (directed by Louis Malle) Star 80 (directed by Bob Fossee), The Tenant (directed by Roman Polanski) and Bergman’s Persona. Again even if you’re not a fan of romantic comedies you can appreciate what Nykvist brought to the party. (Watch the film with the audio off to help you appreciate the cinematography.)

The very first thing that signaled to me that there was some weight to Sleepless in Seattle was the opening shot at the cemetery when a standard funeral scene turns visually stunning when the camera cranes up and exposes the skyline of Chicago. (Nora said that that shot was an attempt to do a version of Saul Steinberg’s famous cover of The New Yorker where New York City dwarfs the rest of the world.)

Nora points out one scene that was shot at Tiffany’s, “Sven amazingly took about half an hour to light the whole thing with two big 10Ks. It was kind of amazing.” (Heck, I’ve taken an hour to light a simple interview.)

Actors
Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. As one critic said about them together they, “should win a Nobel Prize for chemistry.”  But it wasn’t just chemistry, it was talent. Talent often acted out in non-verbal subtext by just the expression in their eyes.

Keep in mind that Hanks’ next two roles after Sleepless in Seattle won him back to back Oscars for best actor (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump). And his next two after those (Apollo 13, Toy Story) weren’t too bad either. Nora points out one scene where Hanks’ is juggling a small stack of mail:

“That little thing of letters that falls off the pile of Tom’s is something that the first time it happened I thought, ‘Oh, he dropped the letters,” the second and third time he did it I realized that he did it on purpose. And one of the reasons he did it is Tom knew better than I did that the scene needed something to end it. Even if it was a little noise. And that little package of envelopes that drops gives the scene what you call a button and helps tremendously where the writing fails.”
Nora Ephron

Music
Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Carly Simon, Gene Audrey, Tammy Wynette, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Harry Connick Jr, Celine Dion and Louis Armstrong. Something for everyone. But with a twist. As Nora put it, “Standards sung by unlikely people.”

Editing
Editor Robert M. Reitano helped shape the film after it was shot. (The opening and the close of film had to be restructured in post. In the first act the Meg Ryan character actually had a long backstory that included her also living in Chicago at the same time the Tom Hanks character did. It wasn’t only written into the script, it was shot. Nora simply said, “That little idea of mine didn’t work.” ) There are other things Nora picked up from the Emmy-winning Reitano including a big argument between Hanks and his son (Ross Malinger) at a key turning point at the end of the second act:

“My first movie (This is My Life) had a big fight in it and my editor Bob Reitano was cutting it and very gently pointed out to me that the next time I had a fight scene I ought to move people around a little bit. So this was the next time to shoot a fight scene and I really paid attention to what he said. People just bounce all over the place in this fight.”
Nora Ephron

Locations
Shot in Seattle, Baltimore, Chicago, New York. The story is dialogue driven, but those four cities in one film make for a visually interesting backdrop.

There’s a lot more depth to this film that I won’t go into beyond saying there are some solid supporting actors, graphics (Milton Glaser/Walter Bernard) and production design. In fact, in wanting to connect Hanks and Ryan together early in the film they have a shot of Ryan walking out a door in Baltimore and do a match cut to Hanks walking out the door in Seattle. According to Nora they didn’t just find a similar door in each city but they shipped the door to both cities. That wasn’t a happy accident, that’s production design at its best showing attention to detail in pre-production.

There are films I’ve seen just this month that I’ve already forgotten the titles of, who’s in them, or what they were even about. But Sleepless in Seattle is a title that rolls easily off the tongue and is a movie that has stayed in the hearts of many for the past almost 20 years now. I don’t think Nora Ephron set out to make a modern day classic in her second film out of the gate, but sometimes the right elements come together in a film and create magic.

Update: Just after I posted this I learned that today just happens to be Tom Hanks’ birthday. A fitting ending to a post about a movie about fate. Happy Birthday Tom Hanks.

Related posts/ Nora Ephron:
Nora Ephron on Hollywood, Hookers & Nuns
Nora Ephron, Voice-over & the Mafia
Screenwriting Quote #165 (Nora Ephron)
Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Tom Hanks:
“Big” Emotions
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connections

P.S. And because I doubt I’ll ever have a reason to mention Brooks Robinson again on this blog about screenwriting—and to preserve my man card— here’s a fine 3-minute tribute to Robinson by Roy Firestone :

Scott W. Smith

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When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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“I work in a business that is run by middle age men who make films for teenage boy fantasies.”
Meg Ryan
In Style magazine
October 2008

“In 2005, (Tyler) Perry said, a Hollywood Pooh-Bah told him that ‘black folk who go to church don’t go to movies.’ Yet from that group he’s carved out a strong niche fan base.”
Perry Hagopain
Time Magazine
March 20, 2008 


shrimtruck0866 

About once a month (in season) a shrimp truck comes to my area in northeast Iowa and parks at a strip mall and sells shrimp and other seafood that were in the waters off Texas a just a few days prior. The truck is only in town for half a day before it moves on to the next town. And the same company has been doing this for over 30 years. 

That’s what I’d call a niche market. What a great idea to load up shrimp and make a little route where you go each month and build a steady market base for seafood lovers in the Midwest. I’m sure things like this happen all over the world. Niche markets are the result of supply and demand.

According to the World Dictionary the word niche means:

1.a position or activity that particularly suits somebody’s talents and personality or that somebody can make his or her own

2.an area of the market specializing in a particular type of product

The feature film Facing the Giants was made for only $100,000 yet opened in over 400 theaters in 2006. It was funded by members of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia who wanted to make a Christian film. Made with largely amateur actors and a mostly inexperienced crew the film went on to  gross over $10 million dollars.  A niche market with a faithful audience.

The church people made their first feature film Flywheel in 2003 and rented a local theater to show the film one weekend. The first night the film sold out and ended up having a six-week run and then got picked up by Blockbuster Video stores, aired on several Christian TV stations and went on to sell 85,000 DVDs.  Not bad for a virtually no-budget film.

But to prove that those first two films weren’t a fluke the writers (brothers Alex, who also directs, and Stephen Kendrick) recently produced Fireproof starring Kirk Cameron that is still in the theaters and was made for $500,000. and so far has grossed over $25 million. It’s safe to say that they have tapped into a niche market and done well.

(To put this in perspective Lions for Lambs released earlier this year starring Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford only had a domestic gross of $15 million. It cost $36 million to make. Though it did better worldwide, with marketing costs marketing included it is estimated that the film lost $50 million.)

And also in Georgia  Tyler Perry has his own niche market. Last month the former New Orleans native who grew up in poverty recently built the 200,000 square foot Tyler Perry Studio on 30 acres in Atlanta. Guests in a attendance at the grand opening included  Will Smith, Sidney Portier and Oprah Winfrey.

According to Wikipedia, Tyler’s “best-known character is Madea who is a physically imposing and overbearing, but well-intentioned, woman who serves both as comic relief and as the loud voice of conscience for the protagonists of Perry’s works.”

The former high school dropout was inspired one day watching The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1992 and wrote a musical dealing with child abuse. While working as a car salesman he staged his first play which was not a success but he continued to hone his writing over the next six years. He began finding success in 1998 with a solid African-American audience and since then has made over $150 million with his plays, DVDs, and feature film releases.

Perry is also producing for TV (Tyler Perry’s House of Payne) and also has written a novel (Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life) that was number one on the New York Times Best seller list in 2006. Many in Hollywood are reportedly confused by Perry’s success.

Perry told Scott Bowles at USA Today, “I’m not sure why no one wants to admit there’s a viable audience out there that believes in God and wants to see a movie with their family. The demand is there. The supply is not.”

 

You may not have seen any of Tyler Perry’s movies (or have even heard of him) but he has had four number one box office movies and this year he was named in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. 

What niche markets do you think you could tap into? What niche markets could Meg Ryan tap into if she shifted her focus around? (Time magazine March 14,2008-suggests we are living in “The Post-Movie-Star Era.”)

It’s one reason why screenwriters and filmmakers are embracing social marketing like My Space and Facebook to build a base of people interested in their work. (Join me at Facebook under Scott W. Smith in the Waterloo, IA network and please mention Screenwriting from Iowa as a reference.)

I first learned about social marketing from Nathan T. Wright at Lava Row not that long ago and now see it everywhere. It’s a natural fit for those wanting to tap into a niche market. (Did you know there is a website just for people interested in people with Mullets? Mullet Passions.) Screenwriter Diablo Cody has more than 18,000 friends on My Space. Do you think that might help her post Juno career?

Both Perry and the Kendrick brothers are once again proof that you can have success in the film industry outside of the traditional Hollywood route –out there in fly-over county. And that it doesn’t hurt to not only have faith in your screenwriting, but faith in your movies.

Side note: Back when Kirk Cameron was on Growing Pains I did a shoot with him on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank for a show called Bridges. It was a three screen multi-media program sponsored by Pepsi and shown to hundreds of thousands of high school students across the county. If I can find a clip I’ll post it later. Kirk seemed like a one of the good guys and I’m glad to see him still making films verses being in the news as another example of a child actor gone bad.

Side note 2: If you live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, Illinois, Indiana, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Texas and would like to know if the shrimp truck comes to your area contact Fabian Seafood or call 409.765.9522 in Galveston. (They are fully licensed and inspected and the food tastes great.)

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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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
Story

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?”
“Short.”
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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