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Posts Tagged ‘Norma Desmond’

“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

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“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

“Film will only become art when its materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.”
Jean Cocteau

“The future of filmmaking is changing and mobile-generated art is fast becoming the next medium for film. In five years, I believe we will be watching films in movie theaters that have been shot on a mobile phone.”
Spike Lee
(April 2008)

I stopped laughing years ago.

Back in 1995 I had a friend tell me she was getting married to someone she had met on the Internet. That was uncharted territory back then and fodder for many jokes.

Four years later when the creative team behind The Blair Witch Project stunned Hollywood with the use of their unusual marketing on the Internet it got everyone’s attention.

Now almost ten years later it seems as if the whole world has jumped on the Internet bandwagon. Video for the web is exploding and it’s hard to be surprised by the technological breakthrough of the month.

There is a new cinema coming and for the screenwriter that means new opportunities. So in two parts I’ll attempt to give a sweeping overview of this new world.

In May of 2005, I was on a shoot in Cape Town, South Africa when I read an article about a director in the United States who was making a national commercial with a cell phone. That’s when I thought to myself, “Someday, someone’s going to make a feature film with a cell phone.” In December of 2005 in Johannesburg, South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof, shot the first dramatic feature film, SMS Sugar Man, entirely with a cell phone. A cell phone.

Kaganof, an accomplished filmmaker, told Ryan Fortune of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times’, “We are re-writing the book on cinema here…things will never be the same…from now onwards, all you’ll need (to make a film) is a good idea, a cellphone, a laptop and you’re off. It opens up a whole world of possibilities….” Fortune commented that the film is a perfect example of leap-frogging meaning a technological leap had occurred much like it had ten years previously with the advent of DV cameras and non-linear editing systems.

But also in 2005, the first feature documentary shot entirely with a cell phone was being shot. Italian directors Marcelo Mencarini and Barbara Seghezzi co-directed the 93-minute film, New Love Meetings. “With the widespread availability of cell phones equipped with cameras, anybody could do this,’’ Mencarini said, “If you want to say something nowadays, thanks to the new media, you can.”

Within a year of the cell phone feature breakthroughs, cell phone film festivals began popping up around the world. For the naysayers out there who question the quality of the equipment or films being made need to view the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was made in 1894 and features, well, Fred Ott sneezing. Yes, I paid a lot of money in film school to learn that, but you can see it free on You Tube.

In fact, you can see quite a lot on You Tube. Not just silly videos of teenagers lip-syncing pop songs, but there’s a mini film school hidden in there. Classic clips from Charlie Chaplin films, the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho are available for you to study.

And you have to admit Judson Laipply’s The Evolution of Dance is original and funny. You have to take notice of a video that gets viewed 10 million times in its first two weeks and a year later as I write this is still the number one all-time viewed video on You Tube with more than 83 million views.

Things have evolved very quickly in digital filmmaking and distribution. I don’t know if there are more people making money in the digital world but there is a heck of lot more content. And that is a start and gives us a taste of what is to come. We know that the Internet is shaking up the industry as more and more people spend time on the Internet and less time watching TV programs and going to movies.

We know that in a few years video stores will probably revert back to the small mom and pop stores that sprang up in the 80’s with the demand for video rental. Stores like Blockbuster will have to diversify what they do to survive. I don’t think the need for people renting movies will ever totally go away, they’ll just become more like those funky retro record stores. (Heck, people still collect 8-track tapes.)

One of the good things that may come out of this is the rebirth of the filmmaker as artist. Because of the high costs of making films, filmmakers have always had an uneasy agreement with commerce. Only certain type of films could be made. Ones that could find a large audience. The goal was a high return on investment.

With the rise of the super blockbuster it was once believed that the studios would then make more smaller, less sensational films. That didn’t happen. Once studios got a taste of 100 million dollar box offices then that became the goal for every film. Bruce the shark in Jaws killed more than people.

Over the years I’ve read article after article where actors, directors, writers, and cinematographers lament over not making the kind of films they really want to make. Part of the problem is they too are caught up in the machine. But every once in a while a flower breaks through the concrete and gets made for the joy of it. Because the writer and or director have a vision beyond simply the box office. The real exciting part is when those films make money.

Not all digital films will turn out as well as Sketches of Frank Gehry, but that is part of the process. Remember, before Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather he cut his teeth on Roger Corman films. Ditto that for Titanic writer/director James Cameron and many other filmmakers. Let’s look back and how far we’ve come in a short time.

I remember in the late 90’s when a filmmaker from New York told an audience at the Florida Film Festival, “I am a filmmaker, I make films with film—I’m not interested in video.” Many film festivals didn’t even allow films shot on video. Looking back it reminds me of the days when snow boarding was outlawed at ski resorts in Colorado. (Snow boarding now represents more than half the revenue at some resorts.) Things change. And these days they change rapidly.

When I was in film school in the early 80’s there was a line drawn between the film and video world. The film students looked down on the video and TV students,  just as did film actors looked down on TV work.

As the 80’s progressed both the VHS videotape market and cable TV opened new opportunities for filmmakers and the lines between film and video became blurred. The year 1994 was the year that I gave up being a film snob. That was the year that Hoop Dreams was released.

I didn’t care what it was shot on it was simply a great film—even if it was shot on video.

Film critic Rodger Ebert would later call it the best film of the 1990’s.  Up until that point there had been a lot of dabbling with video in Hollywood. Jerry Lewis was the first to use video assist on a film for his directorial debut The Bellboy. The first feature film shot on video was 200 Motels, co-directed by Frank Zappa in 1971. Coppola explored with video on The Outsiders back in 1982 mostly for a reference point while working with young actors.

This is a good place to end part one of New Cinema Screenwriting. My last post touched on David Lynch shooting Island Empire on DV and swearing not to return to shooting film. Whether that is another one of Lynch’s bizarre dreams or in fact reality time will tell.

“I think there’s a slight trend toward embracing new cinema, non-Hollywood blockbuster cinema. It’s not erupting, but because of the Internet, I think people have more of a chance to get buzz going on alternative cinema, so I think it’s hopeful out there.”
David Lynch

Granted this is all in the beginning stages which reminds me of an interview I saw last year with the founder of the Geek Squad who said, “What people don’t realize is the internet has not yet started.” Keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago when Bill Gates dismissed the power and future of the Internet.

There is nothing wrong with having Big Budget Technicolor Hollywood Dreams but keep in mind that today in little towns and villages all over the world there are people experimenting with little digital cameras (even cell phones) and making movies. Writing words and making movies. And tomorrow we’re going to be watching some of those films.

It’s kind of like the golden age of Hollywood when they cranked out film after film to hungry audiences in a pre-television era. Films were sometimes made start to finish in a couple weeks. That’s how some directors directed over 100 films.   Most of those films are forgotten but the ones that survived shine brightly.

The first John Ford film that most people have heard of and perhaps even seen is Stagecoach which he made in 1939. (Though he did win acclaim for Arrowsmith and The Informer in ’31 & ’35)  Before he directed Stagecoach Ford had made 94 films in 22 years. (Think about the learning that went into the simple process of making that many films.)  There is a reason that Orson Welles’ is reported to have watched Stagecoach 40 times before he directed Citizen Kane.

He was in his 40’s when his career got rolling and making the films that we remember him for making. And he directed into his 80’s. There are some great older directors and screenwriters out there that the Hollywood system has forgotten even though they have some films still in them. Maybe if they pick up a digital camera they can make their best films yet.

Speaking of 1939, has there ever been a single better year for movies than 1939?

Maybe this new cinema is a return back to the future.

“I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille.”
Norma Desmond
Sunset Blvd.

New Cinema Screenwriting (part 2)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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