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Posts Tagged ‘The Verdict’

“If I take the money I’m lost.”
Lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict

One of my all-time favorite screenplays and movies is The VerdictI happened to see it when when it first came out in theaters back in 1982 when I was in film school. And as I revisit it from time to time I just appreciate the multi-layers of the film.

The David Mamet screenplay is listed at 91 on WGA’s list of 101 Greatest screenplays  just after Sidways and before Psycho. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Sidney Lumet’s direction, and Paul Newman lead role.

I think the film follows the Simple Stories/Complex Characters model, but what the film does is shows us a textured glimpse into the legal world. I haven’t read the Barry Reed book which the screenplay is based on, but my guess is Reed did the heavily lifting.

Reed (1927-2002) served in the Army during World War II before getting his law degree at Boston College. He was in private practice in Boston specializing in, according to Wikipedia, medical malpractice, personal injury, and civil litigation cases.

He’d actually been practicing law for 25 years before The Verdict novel was published so he had plenty life experiences to draw on. But there is a simplicity how the screenplay handles all the complexities of law and medical which make the script a wonderful study even for the new screenwriter.

The core the story is about a fading, alcoholic lawyer whose mentor throws him a case that appears to be an easy cash settlement case. One that will help him get back on his feet. That is until Galvin’s conscience kicks in and he decides to try the case for justice to prevail. And at the same time be a personal redemption for himself.

On page 38 of the screenplay Galvin actually verbalizes to a female friend in a bar what I believe is the theme of the story:

“The weak, the weak have got to have somebody to fight for them. Isn’t that the truth? You want another drink?” 

At the end of a Christopher Lockharts’ post Screenwriting 101 he has an excellent detailed outline of The Verdict which is well worth your time to read. Here’s some of his highlights:

LOG LINE: A drunken, washed-up attorney struggles against a goliath law firm to win a medical malpractice suit.

ACT ONE

PROTAGONIST INTRO

Galvin is introduced as an attorney lower than an ambulance chaser – he chases Hearses. He is a washed-up attorney- glory days long behind him. He is a drunk – who only seems to show signs of life when he is in a bar.

INCITING INCIDENT

For physical/external storyline: MICKEY jolts GALVIN into consciousness, reminding him that he has five-days to prepare for the ONLY case on his docket. This is a definite money-maker that will ensure GALVIN some much needed income (page 6-7).

For psychological/internal storyline: GALVIN visits his comatose client in the nursing home. He comes to understand the severity and enormity of the case before him (page 8).

PLOT POINT: END OF ACT ONE

GALVIN decides to try the case, “I have to try this case. I have to do it, Mick. I’ve got to stand up for that girl” (page 31). NOTE: This is the point in the story where the goal is establinshed. GALVIN’s goal is to win the case. A MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is proposed: WILL GALVIN WIN THE CASE? The MDQ is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told. 

P.S. To find a link to most of the 101 WGA top scripts visit Simply Scripts.

Related links:
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) Galvin belongs in the end of the rope club Oscars ’83.
Writing ‘Flight’ Another alcoholic/redemption story with some echoes of The Verdict. And one Lockhart actually had a role in getting produced.
Emotional Evolution/Devolution (Part 2)
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Great example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

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One of the great things about watching films over and over again is you begin to notice little details and see patterns emerge.  Ideally the first time you watch a movie you are simply engaged in the story.  Then you go back as a screenwriter looking for clues as to what made the films work, and more importantly what will make you a better screenwriter and filmmaker. One things you’ll notice in many films—off the top of my head The Verdict, A Beautiful Mind, Erin Brockovich and Juno come to mind—is in those films the main characters (Paul Newman, Russell Crowe, Julia Roberts and Ellen Page) are in almost every scene in the movie. There’s a reason for that.

Stay with the money. The audience came because you advertised the star. Shoot the star. (NB: Howard Lindsay,* coauthor of the plays Arsenic and Old Lace, Life with Father, State of the Union, et cetera, once privately printed a small volume of stage wisdom. One of his axioms was: take the great lines from the secondary characters and give them to the lead. This works like gangbusters in film and on stage).”
David Mamet
Bambi VS. Godzilla
page 112

*Lindsay (1889-1969) along with writing partner Russel Crouse won the Pulitzer Prize for their 1946 play State of the Union, but they are better known for their work on the Tony Award-winning The Sound of Music. Lindsay’s had more than 25 films made from his work and was the co-screenwriter of the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie Swing Time. That movie features the Oscar-winning song The Way You Look Tonight, which has been covered by many people including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The song was also featured in the 1991 film Father of the Bride and sung by Steve Tyrell. Today many people are most familiar with the Rod Stewart rendition.

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan)” ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp.”

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“Ultimately, it all comes down to one of the grand old rules of screenwriting: whenever possible – show, don’t tell.”
Ray Morton
Script magazine

The Verdict

An early version of The Verdict screenplay by David Mamet:
INT.  COFFEE SHOP - DAY

          Galvin sitting in the deserted coffee shop in his raincoat.
          Reading a section of the paper.  He picks up his teacup, drinks.
          Lowers it to the table.

          ANGLE - INSERT

          Galvin twists tea bag around a spoon to extract last drops of
          tea.  His hand moves to his felt pen lying on the table.  He
          moves his hand to the paper, open at the obituary section.  We
          SEE several names crossed out.  He circles one funeral listing.

          ANGLE

          Galvin sitting, raises cup of tea to his lips.  Looks around
          deserted coffee shop.  Sighs.

Now look again at the above still frame from that movie. Notice anything different? No tea cup, right? Either Mamet, or director Sidney Lumet, or  actor Paul Newman, or somebody else said, "This guy's an alcoholic—what better way of showing that than to have him knocking back a stiff one with his morning donut?" Newman's performance in that scene shows you the desperate state this man is in without a word being spoken. In fact, the whole opening minutes of the film wonderfully shows you a man in need of redemption. 
 
"IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA. IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION, INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN ANEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING).

David Mamet

Memo to The Unit writers

“This is age-old screenwriting advice but it’s so true. SHOW don’t TELL. I can’t tell you how much more impactful it is on a reader to SEE a character take on an issue as opposed to being told of an issue. It would be like Han Solo saying ‘I’m a badass,’ instead of SHOWING him kill Greedo. This is a mistake I see a TON of beginner writers make. They have their characters offhandedly say something like ‘I took a year of karate lessons’ and then later in a key scene kick someone’s ass. It feels false because we never SAW them perform karate.”
Carson Reeves

“Remember, the first rule of film is Show Don’t Tell.” 
William C. Martell
Does Your Script Smell?

“In the eternal struggle to “show” and not “tell” in your screenplays, pictures can be your best friend. Instead of building a whole scene where your characters argue about how good things ‘used to be,’ just show your hero catch a glance of a picture on the fridge showing the family in happier times. In fact, look to use photographs in every aspect of your script to convey quick easy backstory about your characters (i.e. need to convey that one character is adventurous? Show a picture of them rock climbing.”
Carson Reeves
ScriptShadow

 

Show, Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith


 



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If you’re going to recycle you might as well recycle from the best. And today we’re going to not only recycle from David Mamet, but a quote that Mamet learned from others and that he calls “filmmakers’ pearls.” Chicago born Mamet is one of America’s great dramatists. He’s not only a screenwriter but a playwright, an essayist, a novelist, a director, and a poker player.

To just look at the tip of the iceberg, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his play Glengarry Glen Ross (and it didn’t even have that great opening scene in the movie version that features Alec Baldwin) and he won an Academy Award for his script for The Verdict.

Four of his books that I’m drawn to again and again are Writing in Restaurants, On Directing Film, Three Uses of the Knife and Bambi Vs Godzilla. The last one with the subtitle On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business and is where I pulled the quote for the day which was meant more about film editing, but applies to writing :

“‘Stay with the money.’ The audience came to see the star. The star is the hero; the drama consists solely in the quest of the hero.
‘You start with a scalpel and you end with a chainsaw.’ Don’t be too nice about cutting the film; throw away everything that’s not the story.”
David Mamet
BAMBI VS GOZILLA
Page 67


The next time you watch The Verdict take note of how the story stays with the star Paul Newman. I bet there are no more than five scenes without him.
Scott W. Smith

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I was talking to John Irving the other day…

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Okay, technically that’s true, but it’s not like we were hanging out talking about his writings and the finer aspects of American literature. Irving was in Iowa City this week and doing a Q&A session sponsored by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was simply one of the approximately 200 people in attendance and I got to ask him a couple questions.
After University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay Juno the school gave her a blurb on its website and they put in a link to Screenwriting from Iowa because I had written an article about her called The Juno–Iowa Connection. In that blog I went into detail on the long list of great writers who have come out of the University of Iowa.

After poking around their website I found out the Writers’ Workshop had regular readings and decided that Irving was worthy of making the 75 minute trek from Cedar Falls. Not because I’m a huge fan of his work but because of his place in American literature. I do remember discovering his writings while in college and have seen most of the movies made from his novels. Since he was a student and a professor at Iowa I thought he fit the Screenwriting from Iowa concept fairly well.
Some of his movies are The Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, Simon Birch (Prayer for Owen Meany) and The Cider House Rules. The later for which he won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. 
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Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once said of one of his players, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to call roll.” With Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonagunt dying in 2007, Irving is in a class that includes just a handful of American literary giants like John Updike and Tom Wolfe.
It’s been said that film directors are either geeks or jocks. I don’t know if that’s true of writers but in Irving’s case he looks every bit the jock. Even at age 66 he looks like a wrestler to be reckoned with and has had a life long love for the sport. If you follow the American literary scene you have to agree that he is also a writer to be reckoned with. Writer Peter Matthiessen has said, “He’s probably the great storyteller of American literature today.”  
Here are some notes from his Q&A that I thought you’d be interested in;
Irving was turned on to writing at a young age and after reading Dickens  and thought that being a writer would be a good thing. He said that if he would have read Hemingway first instead he’d of probably have ended up doing something different. He went as far as saying he hated Hemingway’s writing which was good for a few chuckles from those gathered at the Dey House. He’s said worse things about Updike in the past. Irving is a man with opinions.
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He said he never thought he could earn a living solely as a writer and in fact was a teacher through his first four books. (Before Garp made him rich and famous he had been writing for 11 years with limited success.) Though he writes his first drafts quickly he spends two-thirds of his time doing re-writing. That is when the book comes together. 
He said that he enjoys the editing side of filmmaking because it closely resembles what he does in rewriting. Though he is a novelist he comes at his work with the audience in mind. “My goal is to entertain you–and break your heart.” He wants to provoke the reader.
Like many (all?) writers with Hollywood experience he’s had his share of bad experiences. But he didn’t seem bitter when he said of the film industry, “It’s not a nice business.”

I’ve been told that in the days before amateur wrestlers wore headgear protection that you could always tell a wrestler by his cauliflower ears. (Cartilage damage that permanently deforms the ear.) It’s an old school badge of honor, a source of pride. It’s a tribal thing for wrestlers. I’m not sure what the equivalent is for a Hollywood screenwriter, but I think Irving has those scars. But he’s a grappler so they don’t appear to weigh him down. He may even enjoy that aspect of the business.
Perhaps he appears more grounded because he’s a novelist that really wouldn’t have a problem walking away from Hollywood if he had to. But more likely it’s because he lives in Toronto and Vermont. and because his roots are far from Hollywood in Exeter, New Hampshire. Maybe he learned something from the stories of Faulkner and others hanging around Hollywood too long.
In his book My Movie Business Irving writes “All writers repeat themselves; repetition is the necessary concomitant of having anything worthwhile to say.” Stephan King in his book on writing says that every writer has their “little red wagon.” For King it’s the paranormal, for John Grisham it’s justice, for Pat Conroy it’s his dysfunctional family, and for Woody Allen it’s his neurotic self.
For Irving it’s themes of disturbing sexual relations, abandonment and a touch of nihilism. I think it was Proust who said that every artist paints the same picture. You may be eclectic in the books you read and movies you watch, but chances are good that there are only a couple issues or themes you care enough about to invest your time writing stories about. (If you’re unsure of the themes that move you just look at the films you watch over and over again. Something there touches a cord inside you.)
A look at the scripts I’ve written and the few movies I own show a fascination with the concept of restoration. (David Mamet’s The Verdict, Ben Afflack & Matt Damon’s  Good Will Hunting, and Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, Gary Ross & Laura Hillenbrand‘s Seabiscuit are a few restoration movies that jump out at me as I glance over at my DVDs.)
As fallen New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer said a few days ago in his resignation speech, “I go forward with the belief, as others have said, that as human beings, our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Few of us will experience such public disgrace as being link to a sex scandal, but is anyone exempt from some level of falling and or brokenness?
“We all walk as crippled men” I once heard a Scottish preacher say drawing out the word crippled in a way that resonated with me to this day.  And so Jenny in Forrest Gump throws rocks at the home she was abused in as a child and Forrest says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.” What I call redemption, the Greeks playwrights called catharsis (cleansing).
After Irving’s Q&A session I made a quick stop at Prairie Lights Bookstore. While it doesn’t have the funky character of The Tattered Book Cover in Denver’s LoDo district or the physical size of Powell’s City of Books in Portland, the quality of books that Prairie Lights Books carries put it on a CNN list of Nine bookstores worth a tourist stop. 
Last November I did a video shoot on Sproule Plaza at UC Berkeley and downtown Iowa City has that kind of feel. (Though I must say I thought it was humorous that the police at Berkeley were giving out tickets for bike riding on Sproule Plaza. Free speech may still be cherished there but riding a bike will cost you.)
I also grabbed this movie marque shot in Iowa City because when else again will I see The Who’s Tommy next to The Princess Bride? (If only it were a double feature.)
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If you live in Iowa or are driving through Iowa on I-80 you owe it to yourself to make a little detour in Iowa City. Soak in the atmosphere that has produced  many Pulitzer Prize winning authors and has become known as The Writing University. Below is a photo I took of the Dey House after Irving’s Q&A session. If you are interested in learning more about the MFA writing program at the University of Iowa visit the website of The Writers’ Workshop.
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The last question I ask Irving was if there was any truth to his writing a screenplay on wrestler Dan Gable. High School & college wrestling is huge in Iowa and Dan Gable is the number #1  icon. Gable was an Olympic champion and coach at the University of Iowa where he won 15 national championships. His only loss in high school and college came on the last match his senior year. Irving said he was serving as producer on the film about Gable. Irving’s love for the sport can be seen by a tattoo one of his forearms. It could be mistaken for a bulls-eye or a skinny version of the Target store logo , but it is actually a wrestling mat starting circle.  I’m sure that won’t be your typical sports film.
As I made the drive home after hearing Irving speak I couldn’t  help but think how ironic it is that in the last eight years two University of Iowa grads have both won Academy Awards for screenplays that are essentially about unplanned pregnancies? (And I’m not sure that topic could be handled more differently than the serious Cider House and the humorous Juno.)
Producer David Puttnam, who won an Oscar award for Chariots of Fire, once wrote that “all films are propaganda.” In that all films are propagating something.  So despite the old Hollywood adage “If you want to send a message use Western Union,” films again and again have messages.
Irving writes in My Movie Business, “The Cider House Rules is a didactic novel. The nature of Dr. Larch’s (Michael Caine) argument with Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) is polemical, and Larch wins the argument in the end…The Cider House Rules was not a love story, Phillip Borsos and I decided. It was a history of illegal abortion.”
He went through fifty drafts of the script to make sure his abortion rights vision was clear. He was clear enough that when Paul Newman read the script he turned down the roll of Dr. Larch and told Irving, “There are so many scenes at that incinerator (Where the aborted babies are burned). That incinerator really gets me.”
What got Juno was an pro-life advocate and school friend who told the Ellen Page character, “Your baby has fingernails.” Juno stops in her tracks and says, “My baby has fingernails?” and the story takes a different direction when she decides not to have an abortion.
Juno was actually the fourth film  of ’07 (following WaitressBella, and Knocked Up) to feature an unplanned pregnancy and an attempt to adjust to less than ideal circumstances to bring the baby into this world.  An interesting trend, don’t ya think?
I’m not sure what it all means, but I’ve said before that one of my favorite quotes is from William Romanowski;  “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.” Remember that when you’re writing.
Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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