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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Benchley’

“Surely the most famous life line in classic storytelling is the glass slipper.”
Wells Root (referring to Cinderella)

Your character has a goal or a problem that needs solved—what they ultimately need to achieve that goal is a life line.

Do you remember in the movie Jaws when the Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) was facing imminent death at the end of the movie? It’s a scene of high drama. It’s a you or me face-off and it looks like Brody is on the losing end with a shark…until he reaches for a life line.

From the Peter Benchley script (this draft only has his name on it) at page 112:

Brody is sliding toward (the shark) with the rest of the debris as the bow raises thirty degrees. He intercepts one of Hooper’s compressed air tanks and just as he and everything else pours toward the whirlpool and into the jaws Brody braces himself and shoves the tanks at the bottomless pit. They jam between the upper and lower jaws and stick fast.

But where did these compressed air tanks come from? The tanks are loaded on Quint’s (Robert Shaw) boat on page 79. They are intended for diving by Hooper, but just so we know the power and danger of the tanks Benchley writes a little exposition.

Quint almost trips over Hooper’s tanks as he walks to the chum barrels. He roughly kicks them aside.

Quint
Fancy goddamn toys….

Hooper
(jumping up)
Careful! Compressed air — you crack that and it explodes like a bomb!

It’s a quick exchange that doesn’t draw attention to itself. So now let’s fast forward to page 112 of the 113 page script. Brody has tossed the tanks in the shark’s mouth. That’s the set-up and now the payoff. Benchley writes (major spoiler coming):

The shark twists backward in the water and turns away. Hooper, rising, is peering around for Brody and Quint. The shark is spinning in crazed circles, the head-thrusts indicating that it can neither dislodge nor swallow the silver tanks. It bites down at fifteen tons pressure per square inch. The TANKS EXPLODE!

Now Spielberg (or Benchley, or additional credited writer Carl Gottieb, or even somebody else) said something like, “Yeah, technically Brody got the shark, but what if we raised the stakes? What if we put victory or defeat in the hands of Brody? Wouldn’t that be a more satisfactory ending than the shark basically killing himself? Brody is a cop, he knows how to shoot a gun. We laughed at him for pulling out his pistol at one point and trying to shoot this giant killer shark. ‘ But what if he falls back on his marksmanship and takes a rifle and has to shoot the compressed air tanks wedged in the sharks teeth or he’s a dead man?” The audiences will be thinking ‘Good luck. That’s not going to work.’ The shark gets closer and closer. Brody pulls himself together, concentrates, fires…and boom The TANK EXPLODES.”

That’s what happens in the movie. The box office exploded as well. And some would say that Jaws was the film that changed American movies forever. With a great big assist by a great life line.

In the book Writing the Script (which happened to be published in 1979—the same year as Syd Field’s Screenplay) Wells Root writes;

“This life line, therefore, is whatever device you can use to resolve your hero or heroine’s problem…But the technique has certain strict limitations. It must be logical. Not cloud-built or contrived. It should not be just wild luck, such as a lightning bolt killing the heavy or a flash flood drowning all the escaping bandits. Your life line should not be deus ex machina. That is latin for ‘a god from the machine.'”

So give your character a life line, but always remember to set it up properly so we’re not reading your script or watching your moving and reacting with a uniform bewildered look as we bury our face in our hands.

And just for the record, life lines tend to have the most impact when what’s at stake is life or death. (What’s at Stake? Tip #9)

What are some of your favorite movie life lines?

Scott W. Smith

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“I was just a guy with a pen and paper and an idea for a book.”
Sebastian Junger
Author of The Perfect Storm

“Writing is sweat and drudgery most of the time. And you have to love it in order to endure the solitude and the discipline.”
Peter Benchley
Author of Jaws

Yesterday I had a video shoot in Cedar Rapids and ate lunch the Irish Democrat Pub & Grille which is the kind of local, non-chain restaurant many people hope to find when they stop in a new town. I’m not sure if their cheese wontons are Irish but they were good.  The place has been around for more than 20 years and taps into that whole John F. Kennedy thing for their theme.

Somehow Kennedy, a Harvard grad, got me thinking about screenwriters from Massachusetts. A lot of talent has flowed through that state because of the colleges.  In fact, look at this list of writers who’ve attended Harvard alone and have had their books and screenplays made into movies:

Frank Pierson  (Dog Day Afternoon) 1976 Oscar winner
James Agee (The African Queen) 1952 Oscar nomination
James Torback (Bugsy), 1991 Oscar nomination
Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) 1991 Oscar nomination
Ron Bass (Rain Man) 1988 Oscar winner (shared with Barry Morrow)
Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) 1989 Oscar Nomination
Erich Segal (Love Story) 1971 Oscar Nomination
Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) 1999 Oscar Nomination
Douglas Kenney (co-writer Animal House, Caddyshack) Co-founder of National Lampoon magazine
Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) 1983 Primetime Emmy Nomination
Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream)
Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!)
William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch)
John Updike (Rabbit, Run)
George Plimpton (Paper Lion)
Ben Mezrich (21)
Ethan Canin (The Emperor’s Club)
Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent)
Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park)
Peter Benchley (Jaws) Novel and co-wrote script that became the first film to make over $100 million
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) 1998 Oscar winner
Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) Oscar-nomination

Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for drama studied playwriting at Harvard and honed his craft writing one-act melodramas for the Provincetown Players on the northern tip of Cape Cod.  From there he became one of a handful of giants in American theater.

While he was born in New York and found his greatest success on Broadway, O’Neil is one more example of someone developing their talent in smaller towns.

But not all writers from Massachusetts have had the benefit of a Harvard connection. In fact, there is one writer from Belmont, Massachusetts who is a nice role model for this entire blog. Sebastian Junger was armed with a degree in cultural anthropology (from Wesleyan College in Connecticut) when he kicked around as a freelance writer until he had an accident while working as a tree cutter in 1991.

In just so happened that at the same time a six fishermen who had left Gloucester on the Andrea Gale died at sea. Junger became fascinated by what happened and used his down time recovering from his injury to write an article, that became a book, that inspired the movie The Perfect Storm.

Junger writes in the introduction of The Perfect Storm:

“My own experience in the storm was limited to standing on Gloucester’s Back Shore watching thirty-foot swells advance on Cape Ann, but that was all it took. The next day I read in the paper that a Gloucester boat was feared lost at sea, and I clipped the article and stuck it in a drawer. Without even knowing it, I had begun to write The Perfect Storm.”

But what really separates him from everyone else who heard about that story is he followed his curiosity and eventually did the research, wrote the article, then the book that became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a George Clooney movie. He ended up on Oprah, with a career as a writer, and even part owner of The Half King bar and restaurant in New York.

Of course, Massachusetts has a long literary tradition going way back to the Puritans founding the Massachusetts Bay in Colony in 1630, and then with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson that I won’t touch on here. I’m not as interested in an exhaustive history lesson as much as encouraging you to write.

But the well does appear deep in Massachusetts. And here’s one more example for you to focus on your writing not where you live:

“New York’s playwright find of the year (Eugene O’Neill) lives obscurely in a clean little cottage, miles from nowhere on Cape Cod.”
Olin Downs
Boston Sunday Post (August 1920)

Update November 2008: Screenwriters from Boston may be interested in the Screenwriting Certificate Program at Emerson College and the group that calls itself New England’s oldest screenwriters network is the Harvard Square Scriptwriters. If you are interested is shooting in Massachusetts contact the Massachusetts Film Office. Paul Sherman has a book out called Big Screen Boston that goes into detail about some of the many movies that have been made in the Boston area.

Update June 2010: Just learned that two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) is from Rockport, Massachusetts.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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