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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Meyer’

Following a couple posts of Jack Kerouac and touching on his book On the Road, I found an extended passage that connects writing with traveling. I was reading this into my iPhone so I tried to stay word for word but may be off a little. It comes from screenwriter Nicholas Meyer who was asked by Ray Morton in Script magazine, “Your scripts are so well structured, how much do you think about structure when writing?”

“Structure is the most important thing to me in drama. For me to get going, I really have to have an over-arching concept of how the thing’s supposed to work and the details of it, and I suspect, are much less important to me because I think if I get that big thing right…then I’m inclined to be much more comfortable doing what I’m doing, ….once I’m know where I’m starting and where I’m going to end, the middle is going to take care of itself. I think there ought to be room…for a kind of spontaneity.  When I was at the University of Iowa,  Max Shulman,who was a very well-known humorist at the time,  came to visit the (Iowa) Writer’s Workshop. He’d written some novels and I remember somebody asking him, “Do you always have an outline when you write a novel?” And he said, “Of course!…I would no more start a novel without an outline then I would a car trip without a road map.” I remember thinking… it sounds like a boring trip, because if you’re completely  bound to the road map, you would seem to deny yourself the possibility of spontaneity, of spontaneous meaningful detours.

The analogy I give myself–-about outlining is that —-once I have the over-arching thing, the rest of it is a little to me like the headlights on a car at night, which is–-that the outline— illuminates the next stretch of the road,  but does not illuminate the whole thing. You just make the assumption by the time you catch up with where the headlights are, they’ll illuminate the next stretch of the road of the road. You try to strike a balance between a structure that seems to accommodate the overall purpose of the story in one hand on the other gives yourself room latitude to wander, to be spontaneous, and to fold all that stuff into the larger skeletal support.
Nicholas Meyer

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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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Captain Kirk isn’t the only Star Trek person with an Iowa connection. Nicholas Meyer who directed Star trek II; The Wrath of Khan (1982) and co-wrote the screenplays for Star Trek IV; The Voyage Home (1986) and Star Trek; The Undiscovered Country (1991) graduated from the University of Iowa in 1964. 

He worked as a Unit Publicist on the 1969 film Love Story. A few years later he wrote the novel The Seven Percent Solution which became a best selling book as well as a movie. Meyer also wrote the script based on that book and received an an Academy Award nomination for his script. 

You’re writing a play, a play for the sceen—a screenplay. What are the elements that make a play? I was trained by Howard Stein at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He said that everybody had to read Aristotle’s Poetics, which we did, in the Francis L. Ferguson translation.  These are my antecedents. When I taught  I would point out that in writing drama for the screen, we first decide what drama is, then worry about how to put it on the screen. That sounds deceptively simple.

According to Aristotle, who in fact was only offering his observations, not setting them down as rules, the skeletal structure of a drama means that a question is asked at the beginning. The process of asking that question is known as exposition. I formulate the problem. Act One: The ghost tells Hamlet, ‘I was murdered by my brother, your uncle, and I want you to get revenge.’ So here’s the question: Will Hamlet kill the king? The job of the dramatist is to raise as much suspence as possible as to the outcome of that question, and when the question is answered the audience goes home. End of play. What will happen if? That’s dramatic structure.”
                                  Nicholas Meyer
                                 Quoted in Screenwriters on Screenwriting
                                  by Joel Engel 
                                  Pages 89-90 

 

Scott W. Smith

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