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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Douglas’

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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“Most of the stuff that I’m looking forward to seeing is on TV now. Almost exclusively due to The Sopranos, there’s been a resurgence in long-form television. That’s great for someone like me, the ability to play out a narrative with a very long arc and explore complicated characters and have the audience be happy about that, it’s very enticing…We, the filmmakers, have got to start thinking differently….I never said I was done directing. I said I was going to stop making movies. I’m hopefully going to be doing a play this fall that Scott Burns wrote.”
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh(Traffic)
May 2013 LA Times Article by Meredith Blake

P.S. Soderbergh’s film Behind the Candelabra starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon premieres Sunday on HBO, and he’s also exploring a whole different creative platform—painting.

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Scott W. Smith

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“In Dial M for Murder, I did my best not to go outside…what I did was to emphasize the theatrical aspects”
Alfred Hitchcock

The film Dial M for Murder (1954) was written by Frederick Knott based on his play. Several different TV versions of the play have been done and it was the basis for the 1998 film  A Perfect Murder starring Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. Here’s an exchange from the ’54 version—directed by Hitchcock— between Tony (Ray Milland), Mary (Grace Kelly), and Mark (Robert Cummings).

Tony: How do you go about writing a detective story?

Mark: Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime’s the thing. And then you imagine you’re going  to steal something or murder somebody.

Tony: Oh, is that how you do it? Interesting.

Mark: Yes, I usually put myself in the criminal’s shoes and then I keep asking myself, “what do I do next?”

Mary Do you really believe in the perfect murder?

Mark: Yes, absolutely. On paper that is. And I think I could plan one better than most people but I doubt if I could carry it out.

Tony: Why not?

Mark: Well because in stories things usually turn out the way the author wants them to and in real life the don’t always.  No, I’m afraid my murders would be something like my bridge, I’d make some stupid mistake but not realize it until everybody was looking at me.

For low-budget filmmakers, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is an excellent film to study because most of it takes place in one apartment. Hitchcock said filmmakers often go wrong when they try to “open up” a play by adding exterior scenes and business. Hitchcock, of course, embraced limitations of locations in shooting Rope, Rear Window and Lifeboat. (One could imagine Hitchcock watching Buried (which takes place in a coffin) and thinking, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

One of Hitchcock’s trademarks in many of his classic films his visual storytelling. But Dial M for Murder is dialogue driven. It’s more intellectually based  than the emotional films such as Birds, Psycho and North by Northwest. Francis Truffaut remarked to Hitchcock that he took something that’s hard to do and somehow made it look easy:

“I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a stage play. All of the action in Dial M for Murder takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter. I could just as well have shot the whole film in a phone booth. Let’s imagine there’s a coupe in that booth. Their hands are touching, their lips meet, and accidentally one of them leans against the receiver, knocking it off the hook. Now, while they’re unaware of it, the phone operator can listen in on their intimate conversation. The drama has taken a step forward. For the audience, looking at the images, it should be the same as the reading the opening paragraphs of a novel or hearing the expositional dialogue of the stage play. You might say that the film-maker can use a telephone booth pretty much in the same way a novelist uses a blank piece of paper.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Truffaut/Hitchcock

Dial M for Murder was also filmmed in 3-D.

Scott W. Smith

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“The most fantastic thing about Mr. Fox is the way he shows that while our flaws can bring us down, sometimes, too, we triumph in spite of them and because of them.”
Nancy Churin, review of The Talented Mr. Fox
Dallas Morning News

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorn.”
William Cosgreve
The Mourning Bride (1697)


There are no speeches about the dangers of infidelity in the movie Fatal Attraction. No one says, “There is a proverb that goes, ‘For the lips of the adulteress drip honey, And smoother than oil is her speech; But in the end she is bitter like wormwood, Sharp as a two-edged sword.'”   No, the film does what film does best, it visually and viscerally tells a story. Remember the old adage  — show, don’t tell.

Back in the early 80s producer Stanley Jaffe saw a short film called Diversion by James Dearden and thought it had potential to be a feature. Jaffe’s producing partner Sherry Lansing agreed and they had Dearden write a feature script that both Jaffe and Lansing loved but was turned down by every major studio. Though Jaffe had won a Best Picture Oscar for producing Kramer vs. Kramer a few years earlier it was not thought there was an audience for a film like Fatal Attraction. (No one ever said winning an Oscar made finding funding any easier.)

It took them over four years to get the film made and it not only found a large audience but earned five Oscar nominations. Its altered ending is legendary and may have cost Glenn Close the Oscar, and while it’s possible that the original ending may have been better it also may have been less satisfying for audiences and released and forgotten. We’ll never know.

Here is a key scene in the movie that is a hybrid of the fourth draft of Fatal Attraction and the dialogue as spoken in the finished film. It’s a wonderful scene that captures the essence of fine screenwriting.  The scene appears at 13:30 into the film after Dan (Michael Douglas) and Alex (Glenn Close) who are business associates have trouble getting a cab in the rain and end up sitting down for a drink.

It’s a scene full of subtleties and subtext. A display of simplicity and complexity. An interesting sidenote is the character Alex was originally named Eve, nothing subtle about that which was why it was probably changed.

(We pick up in the middle of the scene where they are sitting down at a restaurant. And you’ll have to endure the funky formatting because my WordPress isn’t allowing me to format this correctly.)

There is a brusqueness in her manner towards the WAITRESS, suggesting a certain lack of empathy with the other women. The WAITRESS goes off. Alex folds her hands and looks at Dan as if to say, ‘What next?’.

DAN
Ahh, it’s funny – being a lawyer’s
a bit like being a doctor. Everyone’s
telling you in their innermost secrets.

ALEX
You must have to be discreet.

DAN
Oh, yeah.

ALEX
Are You?

DAN
Am I what?

ALEX
Discreet.

He looks at her, an ironic smile playing about his lips.

DAN
Yes, I’m discreet.

ALEX
Me too.

She holds his gaze. There is a moment of complicity.

DAN
Can I ask you something? Why don’t you have a
date tonight? Saturday night.

ALEX
I did have a date. Stood him up, that was the phone
call I made. Does that make you feel good?

DAN
It doesn’t make me feel bad.

There is a momentary lull. Finally:

ALEX
So where’s your wife?

Taken by surprise, Dan fumbles for his words.

DAN
Where’s my wife? My wife is in the country with
her parents visiting for the weekend.

ALEX
And you’re here with a strange girl being a naughty boy.

Dan holds up his hands to protest his innocence.

DAN
I don’t think having dinner with anybody is a crime.

ALEX
Not yet.

DAN
Will it be?

ALEX
I don’t know, what do you think?

DAN
I definitely think it’s going to be up to you.

Alex smiles, She is enjoying the game.

ALEX
Can’t say yet. I haven’t made up my mind.

DAN
At least you’re very honest.

ALEX
We were attracted to each other at the party.
That was obvious. You’re on your own for
the night that’s also obvious. We’re two adults…

A beat.

DAN
Check.

—–

It’s a scene that was wonderfully written and acted. It was also well directed by Adrian Lyne. Dearden received and Oscar nomination for the script and the character Alex Forrest was named by AFI as the #7 villain in movie history.

Lastly, while Dearden did receive sole writing credit for Fatal Attraction, I should point out that Nicholas Meyer was brought in to do some additional writing. Meyer is a graduate of the University of Iowa (B.A.–Theater & Film) and best known for writing a couple Star Trek films, but he was also nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting The Seven-Per-Cent Solution that was based on his New York Times #1 bestselling novel of the same name. The Papers of Nicolas Meyer (working scripts, story ideas, galley proofs, reviews, etc.) are available for research at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #95 (Nicholas Meyer)

Scott W. Smith

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