Friday, October 09, 2015

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Vertigo (1958)

Screenplay by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor based on a novel by Boileau & Narcejac.

I was going to do a major rewrite on this before running it again... but that didn't happen.

VERTIGO is an acquired taste. It’s a slow, brooding, character study with a couple of great suspense scenes and some cool plot twists. It's also darker than dark. Film noir, in living color. Because so many critics have called it “Hitchcock’s Masterpiece” many people either watch it as their first Hitchcock or have built up expectations for the film. It’s a flawed film. You may even hate it.

It’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, but I like it - warts and all. I think it’s one of the most entertaining character studies I’ve ever seen. I think if you look at it as the story of a man who is obsessed with a woman... who dies... and that doesn’t stop him from wanting to sleep with her... you’ll probably appreciate the film. Based on a novel by the guys who wrote DIABOLIQUE who know how to twist a plot.

Hitchcock had two actors he worked with frequently - Cary Grant from last week’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST and Jimmy Stewart. Grant took the suave romantic roles, Stewart took the every man roles. Usually he would play a normal guy like the news photographer in REAR WINDOW who worries that one of his neighbors may have killed his wife, or the college professor in ROPE who worries that two of his students may have killed their friend. Though he plays a San Francisco detective in VERTIGO, he’s not just a normal guy. He has issues.

Nutshell: Again, to all of you writers who long for the good old days when scripts didn’t have to start with a bang... VERTIGO opens with a rooftop chase. Bang - first image is a bar across the screen... as a criminal’s hands grab it, climbing up an access ladder to the roof... cops in hot pursuit. Detective Scotty Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) and a uniform cop chase the criminal - jumping from roof to roof.. Almost falling a few times. The scene will be swiped later for THE MATRIX. Scotty loses his footing, slides down a roof and grabs the rain gutter - which begins to bend. We get the first of several amazing dolly-zoom shots that makes the street become farther away. The Uniform Cop comes to help him... but ends up falling to his death.

Scotty ends up with vertigo - fear of heights - and retires from the police force. A friend from college offers him a job - watching his wife. He’s not worried about infidelity, he’s worried his wife has been possessed by her long-dead great grandmother who offed herself at 26... and his wife has just turned 26 and is acting really really weird. Scotty takes the job, and like in OUT OF THE PAST the detective falls for the woman he’s following, Madeline (a blonde Kim Novak).

Now he’s fooling around with his college chum’s wife! And she *is* possessed by Mad Carlotta. She has dreams of some small village in Spain where she kills herself. As she describes the village in her dreams... Scotty realizes it isn’t in Spain, it’s a Spanish Mission just down the coast. He takes her there, hoping to release the hold Mad Carlotta has on Madeline... but Madeline climbs up to the top of the belltower, Scotty trying to follow, but his vertigo gets in the way, and she jumps to her death. Splat.

Nice story if it ends there... but Scotty just can’t get over Madeline’s death. Every time he spots a woman who resembles her, he begins to hope it *is* her and she’s still alive. Then he bumps into blue collar shop girl Judy (a brunette Kim Novak) who looks close enough to Madeline that he starts dating her... then doing a make over on her... having her dye her hair and dress and walk like Madeline. He’s recreating his lost love in another woman - so that he can sleep with Madeline again... necrophilia! And you know this isn’t going to end well.

Hitch Appearance: About ten minutes in, Hitch is waddling down the street with a horn case.

Great Scenes: Let’s start with that great rooftop chase. So cool they stole it for THE MATRIX. The film hits the ground running... which is good because the next scene is a talky scene with Scotty and his gal-pal Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that establishes she’s in love with him and he just wants to be friends. This relationship continues throughout the film in several scenes.

But the end of this scene has a great bit where Scotty pulls out a step stool to test his acrophobia. He steps on the first step - not a problem. Steps on the second step - not a problem. But we know there is going to be a problem eventually - which turns each step into *suspense*. The *steps* are a ticking clock. Building step-by-step until Scotty reaches the height where his vertigo kicks in... and we get that dolly-zoom thing again that makes the floor seem like it’s zooming away from you - without the camera changing position at all.

I used the dolly zoom thing on a couple of my silly little short films - and it’s much harder than it looks because the zoom has to be going at the same rate as the dolly. I’m sure when you have Hollywood equipment and crew people you can get one good take after a few hours... that was not the case with my wheel chair dolly.

NEXUS WORDS: One of the interesting things in this film is the use of the word “past” and elements from the past - I call this the “nexus word” because it connects story and theme and character through the choice of words in dialogue. In VERTIGO Scotty’s college buddy Gavin (Tom Helmore) talks about San Francisco’s past throughout his scene. And locations like Portals Of The Past and almost all of the small talk deals with the past... and Gavin’s wife is haunted by the past - Mad Carlotta. The word "past" and other words and phrases that have to do with the past are spread throughout the screenplay... kind of a subliminal element.

TAIL JOB: There’s a 14 minute segment with no dialogue where Scotty follows Madeline that shows that shows her slowly being possessed by a dead woman and finally attempting suicide. This isn't some EXORCIST style possession, this woman goes about her daily life acting perfectly normal. But she buys a flower corsage that a dead woman wears in a painting. She has her hair styled like the dead woman's. She visits the dead woman's grave. She rents a room in the dead woman's house (now broken into apartments). She performs *actions* that show us what's going on inside her mind.

This 14 minute segment also shows us the relationship between Scotty and Madeline... How he comes to care about her - just through what he does. And how he comes to realize that she is possessed by dead Carlotta. I often show this segment in my big 2 day class, but no matter how brilliant it is at visual story telling - it’s *14 minutes long*! Might as well just watch the whole movie!

BAY RESCUE: While Scotty is following Madeline, she drives out to Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge... and jumps into the bay! Scotty jumps in and saves her...

Cut to Madeline waking up in Scotty’s apartment, in his bed... naked. He gives her a robe... but all of her clothes, including her underwear, are hanging out to dry. This is a weird scenes, because he’s saved her life... and seen her naked. She’s not sure how to react, and their conversation has this strange sexual tension.

REDWOODS: After he’s seen her naked, they decide to take a day trip together, and end up in the redwoods (that’s a long day). Of course, there’s a redwood slice showing what rings represent what past historical events. And the more time Scotty spends with her, the more he falls in love with her... and the more he realizes she’s crazy.

PREMONITIONS: One of my favorite writing tricks in VERTIGO is the dream that comes true. Madeline tells Scotty about a dream she had - and gives him all of these details. She’s in Spain, in some village, and she describes everything... and then, at the end of the dream, she dies.

Scotty recognizes some of what she describes - it’s not Spain, it’s the old Spanish Mission down the coast. He thinks if he takes Madeline there, and she sees that it’s real, she may be “cured”. Nice plan, but it backfires.

The cool thing about the scene where he takes her to the Mission is that everything she described is *there* - it’s like her dream come true. And every time we see a detail from her dream - it sends chills down your spine because you know how the dream ends - she dies. So each detail is another step closer to her death... another type of ticking clock!

This scene is magical and tragical - every one of those details from her dream suddenly becomes reality! As a viewer you are amazed that she could so accurately predict what will happen in a scene that hasn't happened yet. She says there will be a white horse... and there's a white horse! How could she know that?

But here’s the thing - as a writer, you just write up the dream in one scene, and then a couple of scenes later have it come true. It’s a no cost “special effect” that works. But Madeline’s dream ends with her death... so the more we see from her dream, the closer the end of her dream is to becoming a reality. This builds suspense and dread.

You don't need an actual clock - or some silly big red LED bomb timer - to create a ticking clock. What you need is something that creates steps that take us closer and closer to that event we don't want to have happen - and we need to see each step. It might be a literal step - like on the step stool - or detail after detail that turns a nightmare into reality... with a character's death at the end.

BELL TOWER: When Madeline races to the Mission’s bell tower, Scotty chases after her. But inside the bell tower, climbing the endless stairways up... vertigo kicks in. We get some great extreme dolly-zooms... and then Madeline makes it to the roof while Scotty is still battling his agoraphobia... and she jumps. Falling all the way to the terra cotta roof below and breaking tiles. It’s deja vu all over again - Scotty has lived and the other person has fallen... to their death.

Next we get a protracted inquest scene where they really rub in Scotty’s failure to save her. Gavin says he can’t stay in San Francisco... too many memories.

BAD DREAM A GO GO: Scotty has a twisted nightmare - where Madeline becomes Mad Carlotta and he’s the one who is falling from the bell tower. The dream is filled with animation and animated effects that probably were mind blowing in 1958... but don’t really hold up today. Difficult to have animation and live action in the same sequence - in the same shots - and have that animation be supposedly “real”. After this nightmare, Scotty ends up in the looney bin.

IS THAT HER? Once Scotty is released from the asylum, every place he looks he thinks he sees Madeline. He goes to all of the places where she used to go - searching for her. It’s a reverse of the tail job sequence - all of the same locations.

In the 2 day class I show 3 scenes from VERTIGO That all take place at elegant Ernie's Restaurant - and chart the changes in Scotty by keeping the background the same (location) and changing the foreground.

1) First scene is when Scotty goes to Ernies to see what she looks like - she's beautiful. It's love at first sight (DVD chapter 5 - Elster's Wife).

2) After she’s dead, he hangs around outside Ernie's Restaurant... finally going inside and sitting at the bar in the same place he sat the night he first saw her. He looks through the restaurant for some sign of her... spotting a woman who looks similar (DVD chapter 24 - Ghosts).

3) Later in the film he meets a department store clerk who looks similar to Madeline and takes her to Ernie's Restaurant. They dance together, but she has none of the elegance of Novak's character. She's out of place in Ernie's. The date is a flop (DVD chapter 27 - Because I Remind You Of Her).

This is called an "Echo Scene" - I believe Michael Hauge came up with that term. I have a Script Tip in rotation about Echo Scenes that uses scenes from NOTORIOUS on a park bench as the example.

Three scenes in Ernie's Restaurant. The first scene sets up Scotty's love for Madeline. The second scene shows us Scotty missing Madeline. The third scene shows us Scotty trying to replace Madeline with another woman... and failing. By returning to the location and keeping the type of scene a constant, the audience focuses on the DIFFERENCES between the scenes - Scotty's emotional state. None of these three scenes have any dialogue, yet all are deeply emotional. They SHOW us what Scotty's character is feeling. When he hangs around outside Ernie's, we know he's heart broken. He doesn't have to say a word. That’s a technique you can use in your screenplays.

MEETING JUDY: At the end of Scotty’s reverse tail job, where he visits all of the places Madeline used to go, he spots a woman on the street who reminds him of Madeline... Judy Barton. Follows her to her apartment, then asks her out. Stalker!

Actually, it’s more sick than that. This is a really uncomfortable scene, because he’s not stable. Scotty says she reminds him of a girl... and Judy guesses that the girl is dead. And Scotty pesters her to go out to dinner with him, questions her about her identity, and is just creepy. She finally agrees to go out with him.... and we get Judy’s backstory. The next day, they go to Ernies... and then he keeps asking her out.

SPOILERS - I’ve decided to leave out a couple of interesting scenes. We can discuss them in the comments section if you’ve seen the movie.

JUDY TRANSFORMATION: Look for the color green - it ties the two women together. Eventually, Scotty wants to go all te way... and turn Judy into Madeline. He buys her Madeline’s clothes... a really uncomfortable scene. Judy knows he’s turning her into the dead girl... and objects. But he begs her - it’s just clothes, right? But it doesn’t end there. He wants her to talk different, act different... and dye her hair blonde. “Couldn’t you like me just the way I am?” She asks if he’ll love her, Judy, if she dyes her hair? He says yes... but you know it’s a lie... and you know Judy is messed up enough emotionally to agree to the dye job. He waits in her apartment while she’s at the hairdressers... then she comes home... or maybe Madeline does. Except for the hair style, she *is* Madeline. So he forces her to change her hairstyle...

Then - she is Madeline. Looks exactly like her. Scotty sweeps her into his arms and kisses her... but he’s really kissing Madeline... and we get a great visual - as they kiss, the camera rolls around them... and it’s Scotty kissing the real Madeline moments before she ran to the bell tower and killed herself... and as the camera keeps moving, we’re back in Judy’s apartment, and he’s kissing the fake Madeline - all one shot.

This technique will be used again in Brian DePalma's OBSESSION (written by Paul Schrader) - a VERTIGO homage (and one of DePalma's better films) and then in OLD BOY (which shares many story elements with OBSESSION). By using one shot that seemlessly takes us from present to past and then back to present, we can see that Scotty has succeeded in transforming Judy into Madeline - they are the same person in his mind. One shot - one woman is the other.

Then *wham* Judy puts on a necklace. Madeline’s necklace. Carlotta’s necklace.

BELL TOWER 2: Scotty decides to take Judy to the Mission... where Madeline died. He’s crazy. Out of his mind. He forces her to go up the stairs with him. And it does not end well. Two women he loves, Two bouts of vertigo. Two tragedies... It

And that’s the happy Hollywood ending for 1958... it's *Scotty* who ends up wandering the streets like Mad Carlotta after his heart has been torn out. The transformation of Madeline was fake... the transformation of Scotty was real.

VERTIGO is film noir, in color.

Sound Track: Seriously - one of Bernard Herrmann’s best scores - and he has hundreds of great scores for this to be on the Best Of compilation. Haunting, lyrical, and has that undercurrent of castanets. When I wrote my PAST LIVES script that’s pretty much all I listened to (and Herrmann’s SISTERS score).

WE LIKE TO WATCH: One thing that’s interesting about that 14 minute sequence and much of the rest of the film is that is has characters *watching* someone. In the space of time between watching VERTIGO and typing up this blog entry I saw a half dozen films or so, and noticed that in almost all of them there were scenes or sequences or just shots where the protagonist observed someone without them knowing. They spied on them.

Now, Hitchcock would tie that in to REAR WINDOW, one of my 3 favorite Hitchcock films and note that the audience is predisposed to identify with people who spy on others... as they are basically spying on the people on screen. And that may be the reason why so many protagonists in non-Hitchcock films - comedies, rom-coms, science fiction, westerns, horror, dramas - spy on other characters. Stories about those who spy on others may have an advantage over other kinds of stories when it comes to the cinema because the audience isn’t just listening... they’re spying. Watching other people’s lives.

We’ll look deeper into that in a few weeks when we look at REAR WINDOW. Next up should be THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH remake, but I think I’m going to save that for a double header (or back-to-back) entry that looks at both versions. So we’ll be looking at either the comedy TROUBLE WITH HARRY or the romantic thriller TO CATCH A THIEF next Friday.

- Bill


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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

When Should You Abandon A Screenplay?

At Story Expo a few weeks ago, I once again had the pleasure of sitting down with Film Courage for an interview. It was the end of a long day, and my only plan was to head to the hotel bar and see if Shelly from (old print) Script Magazine or Danny from No Bull Shit was there... but they grabbed me in the hall as they had last year and took me into a little room and began hammering me with questions. We ended up talking for about 2 hours, including what could have been a whole class on Writing Dialogue (basically many of the 40 Pro Dialogue Techniques from the DIALOGUE Blue Book). These will be cut into segments around 5 minutes long and spread out over the next few months (heck, might be a whole year!). Now the Second segment is up, so let me add it to the first.

Second easy question: When should you abandon a screenplay?

The two screenplays I talk about here (and everything else on "the shelf") had gone all the way to FADE OUT. It's so much easier to fix a screenplay that is written than one that is not. The shelving thing only works if you don't abandon them!

And the first segment...

Softball questions to start out with, like "Are Writers Damned?"

How the hell do you answer that?

I never did make it to the bar...

- Bill

There is a new Blue Book....

Now Availabale!


*** SELLING BLUE BOOK *** - For Kindle!

Should really be called the BUSINESS BLUE BOOK because it covers almost everything you will need to know for your screenwriting career: from thinking like a producer and learning to speak their language, to query letters and finding a manager or agent, to making connections (at home and in Hollywood) and networking, to the different kinds of meetings you are will have at Studios, to the difference between a producer and a studio, to landing an assignment at that meeting and what is required of you when you are working under contract, to contracts and options and lawyers and... when to run from a deal! Information you can use *now* to move your career forward! It's all here in the Biggest Blue Book yet!

Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 400 pages!

Only $3.99 - and no postage!

Monday, October 05, 2015


Finally finished! Why did it take so long? It's over 400 pages long! That's like *2* books worth of material! Did I charge extra? Nope - still only $3.99. (But look for all of the Blue Book prices to go up a buck sometime next year... there are $5 screenwriting "books" on Amazon that are under 50 pages...) The problem was, the old paper version of the Blue Book was (and is) only around 40 pages of material, so it could only focus on the very basics of getting your script out there... nothing about making connections, nothing about assignments, nothing about meetings, nothing about options, nothing about contracts, nothing about side doors into the business, nothing about *most* of the aspects of the business. Once I typed the words:

"Though this book is titled “Selling” that is kind of a misnomer, because it should be called the Business Blue Book. There will be much more involved in your screenwriting career than selling screenplays, so I’m going to try to cover as much as I can. Titling this book something like “40 Places To Sell Your Screenplay” would be completely misleading because most screenplays never sell, they are “job applications” for *assignments*. Knowing 40 places or 40 ways to sell your screenplay isn’t going to be very helpful when they read your script, love it, but instead of buying it they want you to pitch your take on a novel or comic book... and that’s more likely than a sale!"

I knew I was in trouble, because now I'd have to address all of those things! I'd have to go beyond query letters and look at all of the things that happen once your career begins, and you need to know all about meetings and assignments. Things you need to know in order to make connections that get you into the business. All of the back doors and side entrances into the business... what about contests? Pitchfests? Hey, what can you expect when you do a round of meetings and where will they make you park? How do you find a manager? Do you need a lawyer? There are so many aspects of the screenwriting business that I know even at 400 pages I have left things out... but eventually you have to type Fade Out and release it into the world. So here it is...



405 Pages!

*** SELLING BLUE BOOK *** - For Kindle!

Should really be called the BUSINESS BLUE BOOK because it covers almost everything you will need to know for your screenwriting career: from thinking like a producer and learning to speak their language, to query letters and finding a manager or agent, to making connections (at home and in Hollywood) and networking, to the different kinds of meetings you are will have at Studios, to the difference between a producer and a studio, to landing an assignment at that meeting and what is required of you when you are working under contract, to contracts and options and lawyers and... when to run from a deal! Information you can use *now* to move your career forward! It's all here in the Biggest Blue Book yet!

Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is over 400 pages!

Only $3.99 - and no postage!

USA Folks Click Here.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Other countries check your Amazon websites... it's there!

Seriously - TEN TIMES larger than the paper version (still on sale on my website)! That's just crazy!

The next 3 Blue Books will be DESCRIPTION, STRUCTURE, and BLOCKBUSTERs (all 3 in 2016 I hope). Everyone wants the OUTLINES Blue Book, and I've promised it for the past couple of years, but the problem is I don't have enough ideas for new chapters, yet... and I want to get it up to 200 pages. I hope that over the next year I'll come up with some new chapter ideas and get that out at the beginning of 2017.

Thank you to everyone!


Lancelot Link: Streaming Martians

Lancelot Link Monday! Martians. They Need Women in some movies, in others they are an Angry Red Planet. Why is *Mars* the planet of choice for movies? John Carter goes there, Robinson Crusoe went there, about a decade ago we had two movies in the same year that went there. What is it about Mars? While you're thinking about that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 The Martian..................... $55,000,000
2 Hotel Trans..................... $33,000,000
3 Sick Cars....................... $12,075,000
4 The Intern, MD.................. $11,620,000
5 Larry Storch Trials.............. $7,650,000
6 Black Mass (NOT horror).......... $5,905,000
7 Everest.......................... $5,510,000
8 The Visit........................ $3,950,000
9 War Room......................... $2,800,000
10 Perfect Guy...................... $2,400,000

2) Streaming Box Office?

3) Women Directors Of The Silent Era. Something I look at in Vintage Screenwriting #1.

4) The Next GAME OF THRONES? Will the Martells be represented?

5) What Movies Cost To Make.

6) How To Succeed In The Film Business!

7) Soderbergh: "Film is fear based!"

8) INVASION OF Philip Kaufman Interviews!

9) As The Relativity Turns... Latest Episode.

10) Should Your Movie Star A... Woman?

11) David Cronenberg *Loves* The Weinsteins!

12) New SPECTRE Trailer!

13) Unlucky 13 Mystery Link!

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

MARS Landing was faked?


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Friday, October 02, 2015

The French Hitchcock?

If you've seen INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, the movie playing at Shoshana's cinema that gets bumped for the Hitler Assassination Plan is called LE CORBEAU (THE RAVEN) - she has to take the letters off the marqee. The film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who is often called the French Hitchcock. Clouzot also directed a couple of my favorite films, WAGES OF FEAR and DIABOLIQUE. He is a great director - knows how to build tension to the breaking point. LE CORBEAU was only his second film, but it still works decades later.

LE CORBEAU is about an alof handsome young doctor in a village hospital who begins to get threatening letters signed by "The Raven". The letters accuse him of having an affair with an older doctor's pretty young wife... and of being an abortionist, who may even have been the one who knocked up all of the women he's accused of aborting. Because he wasn't born in the village, he's seen as an outsider... and when word gets out people believe these rumors.

The old doctor's wife also gets a letter from The Raven... and soon half the village are getting threatening letters accusing them of some rumored activity. The Raven knows *everyone's* secrets! Who can it be? The old cuckold doctor and young doctor basically must work together to find out who is The Raven. And there are some *great* suspects and a really shocking twist end. Actually, a double twist.

Though this is an early film of Clouzot's - not as suspenseful as DIABOLIQUE, it still packs a punch and has some very well drawn characters and it will keep you guessing until the end. The alof doctor is an interesting protagonist because he has a deep dark secret - and we think we know what it is and we are completely wrong. The character is a twist.

If you're curious about French films made during WW2 and during the Nazi Occupation, check this one out. Oh, and look between the lines for a message about living and working in Nazi Occupied France.

- Bill

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Scene Of The Week: DIRTY HARRY

This week’s scene is one of my favorites, and it does a great job of introducing the protagonist... using *visual* exposition rather than the often clumsy verbal kind. I use it as one of several examples of protagonist introductions in THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING, and because that book works for all genres let’s snag that scene for discussion here.

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Though the "Hot Dog" scene in "Dirty Harry" (1971) isn't the first time we see the character (it’s his third scene), it is a good example of how to pack lots of information in a single scene. Harry is sitting at the counter in a blue collar diner eating a hot dog when he spots a car idling in front of a bank across the street. Harry tells the diner owner to call the police, then unholsters his 44 Magnum and stops the bank robbery single handed, destroying anything which gets in his way. Finally he threatens the downed bank robber, and gives his signature lines from the film: “Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

A great scene, huh?

So let's take a look at that scene and then tear it apart to see how it works:

One simple little scene - what do we learn about Harry from this scene?

1) He's a blue collar guy. When Harry says he’ll have the usual, the fry cook asks “Usual dinner or usual lunch?” Harry asks what does it matter... and the fry cook makes him a hot dog. Not only is Harry a regular here - he’s a regular here twice a day sometimes. San Francisco has all kinds of great restaurants, he’s more comfortable eating a hot dog at some neighborhood joint. We’ll look at the scene that follows this one in a moment for more of Harry’s blue collar side... and a simple thing that helps us identify with this Bad Ass Hero.

2) He's incredibly observant and smart. He sees the smoke from the tail pipe of the car parked in front of the bank, and figures out that there is a robbery in progress. Harry is kind of like Sherlock Holmes - he sees all of the small details that others miss. Everyone else sees a busy city street - Harry sees the car idling in front of the bank. We’ll look at the actual introduction scene to Harry in a moment, which has more Sherlock Holmes elements.

3) He carries a non-regulation gun. A HUGE gun. A gun that isn't designed to wound, but to kill. That was one of the “selling points” of this film - that huge gun. It’s the most powerful handgun in the world. It’s a *hand cannon*. There’s a chapter of SECRETS OF ACTION called “Weapons For Weirdos” about how a character’s choice of weapon can give us character information and create a way for us to identify the character. If everyone uses the same (regulation) gun, they become bland. We want our characters - even the henchmen - to stand out. Have a “personality”. If giving Henchman #2 a cross bow helps turn a minor character into someone more memorable, go for it! That same theory applies to your protagonist. Don’t give them a bland weapon (or wardrobe or whatever) when you can give them a distinctive one.

4) He faces the robbers alone. He is fearless. He tells the fry cook to call the police department and tell them there is a 211 in progress. But the moment he hears the alarm go off, he gets off his stool, eating the last of his hot dog, and pulls his gun and starts shooting. There are two bad guys, one of him - and he’s still chewing on his lunch - and he just strolls out and engages them in a shoot out.

5) He doesn't wait for back up. He's a lone wolf, not a team player. He could have easily just waited for the police cars to come after the fry cook called in the 211. It’s his lunch hour, right? But that isn’t Harry. Harry isn’t really part of the police department, he’s his own man. In the second scene with Harry, he’s reporting to the Chief Of Police (John Larch) and the Mayor (John Vernon) and he’s paired with toady team player Lt. Bressler (Harry Gardino) to bring out Harry’s independence. Where Bressler is doing everything possible to kiss the Mayor’s ass, Harry is holding his disdain in check. He’s a guy who does his job but hates office politics. He is not a team member, nor is he a show off. He’s *independent* and *interdependent*, which matches the cowboy character Eastwood played in many films.

6) He continues eating his lunch as he brings down the robbers. This is just another normal occasion for Harry. He’s calm while everyone else (robbers included) are running and screaming. Cars flip over! Shotguns are fired at him! At one point he looks down at his leg and sees red drops, and you can see him wondering: ketchup or blood? He is not afraid or hurt or affected. He is a bad ass. Everyone else has their adrenaline pumping like crazy, Harry is just trying to finish his lunch. While shooting bad guys.

7) Nothing gets in his way on his quest for "justice". He trashes the entire block while catching the criminals. Talk about collateral damage! There’s a great shot where Harry walks through the wreckage, past the flipped car and blasting fire hydrant, through the “rain”, passing a civilian car where people are screaming, directly to the injured suspect with the shotgun. Harry is a juggernaut. All of this destruction isn’t even on his radar, only the perp. This is an important character trait, because Harry will cause all kinds of destruction in his wake later in the story that will get him almost thrown off the force.

8) He doesn't give the wounded robber the Miranda-Escobito warning... He threatens to KILL him. No kid gloves, here. This guy treats criminals like scum. Here’s where he gets his signature line, and informs us that the gun will blow the bad guy’s head clean off.

9) For being such a bad ass, he has a sense of playfulness. Though the “Six shots or only five” line is a threat, it’s a *clever* threat. Harry isn’t some on-the-nose tough cop, he’s the kind of cop who is going to say things like “When a naked man is chasing a woman with a butcher knife and a hard on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross” to explain why he shot a suspect. Harry always has some amusing way of saying things - and the target of his wise cracks tend to be authority figures like the Mayor. This is a great way to balance out a character who is mostly seen in violent action.

10) Harry is always in control. After he threatens the wounded bank robber, who gives up and lets Harry take his shot gun rather that have his head blown clean off by that 44 Magnum, the robber says: “I’ve got to know.” Did Harry fire 6 shots or only 5? Was Harry’s threat just a bluff? Remember, Harry has that Sherlock Holmes element - of course he knows how many shots he fired in all of this excitement. But instead of Harry saying it was all just a bluff and his gun is empty, he walks up to the robber and aims the HUGE gun point blank at his face and pulls the trigger. Click. Harry smiles and walks away. Remember that actions not only speak louder than words, they are more visceral - and can be more clever. Of all of the ways Harry could have shown the bank robber that his gun was empty and this was a bluff, *this* method packs the most punch. Look for the small ways you can make an impact in your scene. The *beats* in the scene are important, and need to be just as creative and interesting as the scene itself. It’s not just the scene idea, but all of the little ideas within the scene.

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We learn many other details, and also get audience identification with Harry: This interrupts his lunch. Not even a sit-down lunch, but a lousy hot dog. Anyone who has ever had their lunch interrupted by work knows how Harry feels. I know that seems like a minor point of identification, but Harry is what I call a Bad Ass Protagonist, kind of a superhero without the tights. Though I go into much more detail in the book, the problem with protagonists like this is that they are more characters we wish we could be than characters we can identify with - so anything you can do to give us a point of identification helps. Being interrupted at lunch by work may seem minor, but it’s something. The writer was *thinking*.

This is a “fun” scene. At no time do you think it’s any form of exposition. You probably weren’t aware that you were learning anything at all about this character. It was a big shoot out and the protag’s signature line. A fire hydrant gets hit! A car flips over! And Harry’s reaction is *irritated* that his lunch has been interrupted! This is an *entertaining* scene, and we never realize that it is really and *information* scene. You never want the audience to realize you are establishing something that will pay off later or giving them critical plot information - you want them to be in the moment, enjoying the story. Storytelling is basically giving the audience information, but we don’t want them to be aware that they are getting that information - we want them to be wrapped up in the story.

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THE NEXT SCENE: After this shoot out, the red drops on Harry’s pants end up being blood rather that ketchup, and he goes to the emergency room. The doctor, Steve, grew up in the same neighborhood as Harry - establishing that Harry is a San Francisco native... and once had a childhood. (One of my favorite lines of dialogue is from ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ when Eastwood is asked how his childhood was and answers “Short”.) We also find out some personal information - the doctor tells Harry that if he has discomfort after being stitched up to have his wife... then stops cold and apologizes to Harry. And Harry has a flash of pain. The shotgun blast didn’t even register, but the mention of his wife does. This creates some character mystery which will be solved later in the story. Always great to withhold some information about your characters to keep the audience wondering (and involved) for a few scenes. This works especially well with Bad Ass Heroes because they tend to be mysterious. But when the doctor gets ready to cut off Harry’s trousers to remove the shotgun pellets, we get some character gold. Harry *painfully* removes the trousers, “For $29.50, let it hurt.” This guy lives on a budget, and that reinforces the blue collar aspects of his character and helps to create some identification with a character completely unlike us.

INTRO SCENE: The very first shot is the Scorpio Killer’s sniper rifle aiming right at the viewer! Then we see, through his sniper scope, a woman at a rooftop pool taking off her robe and diving in. Swimming laps. She’s beautiful, sexy, and the killer admires her through his sniper scope. Then fires - killing her - blood staining the water.

A door opens and Dirty Harry walks up to the rooftop pool. He’s silhouetted in the evening light - this is THE MAN. He studies the crime scene for a moment - and what we have is kind of a locked room mystery. Who could have gotten onto the rooftop to kill her? Who had access? Why didn’t she notice? Did she know the killer? But Harry is like Sherlock Holmes - he looks around at the other rooftops.

Harry walks down the streets until he comes to a skyscraper in the business district. On the rooftop, he walks around the perimeter - the city far below. Cars look like ants. You can’t even see people from this height. This is great, because we get a bird’s eye view of the city - and Harry is on top of it. There’s something subliminal about showing Harry looking over the city, not lost on Christopher Nolan. Harry walks around the top of the building until he comes to the side overlooking the rooftop swimming pool - way in the distance. We get a great telephoto shot of them removing the woman’s body that gives us a sense of how far away it is - just a blue rectangle from here. Harry searches the roof, finds a shell casing, uses his pencil to pick it up to preserve finger prints... then sees the paper flapping on an antenna and moves to read it. The Scorpio Killer’s note.

All of these actions in this opening scene have set the duel between Harry and the Scorpio Killer and shown how both are worthy adversaries. Harry has been established not just as a guy who uses the most powerful handgun in the world, but as a true detective like Sherlock Holmes. He can spot the clues where others can’t. A couple of minutes in and we have set up the entire story... and set up many elements of both protagonist and antagonist.

And in the Hot Dog Scene we learn at least ten very important things about Harry from this one brief scene. By the time Harry gets a new partner and is set out after the Scorpio Killer, we know exactly how he will react in every scene, because it was all set up in this character introduction scene. What we don't get in this scene – that Harry was married and his wife died after being hit by a drunk driver, but do we really need to know that to understand the character and their actions when the plot kicks in?

Do you feel lucky punk? Well, do you?

- Bill

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Flashback: The Instant Pitch

A rerun from 2007...

Screenwriters have to be able to think on their feet. You never know when an opportunity will present itself, or where an idea night be hiding, or when a chance to sell a script might pop up. A novelist has the luxury of time, a screenwriter has to come up with the solution to a story problem in a meeting with the producer right after he points out the problem. One of the things I've learned is that the longer a problem goes without the writer solving it, the more likely someone else will jump in with a solution that just doesn't work... but it's now your job to make it work...

After selling the script that got me to Los Angeles, I made the mistake of locking myself in a Van Nuys apartment for two years writing scripts and NOT networking until my money from the sale was almost gone. I thought that my sale to a company on the Paramount lot would result in my phone ringing off the hook from other producers - didn't happen. Though my sale was announced on the front page of The Hollywood Reporter, the film was never made and the producer went back to TV... leaving me without even the connection that got me to town in the first place! Now I had a mound of scripts and didn't know anybody to sell them to. But I did know about the American Film Market - where independent films are sold to independent distributors. Though the AFM wasn't open to the public, I had connections with my hometown newspaper and managed to get a press pass into the event. I now had nine days to meet a producer and sell a script, or I would have to begin looking for a day job.

Though I have nothing against day jobs, and there's no reason to be embarrassed if you're paying the bills while waiting for your screen writing career to kick in, I'd rather sell a script than do heavy manual labor. So I was REALLY motivated.

I passed out business cards and script synopsis to everyone who seemed likely to buy a script from me. I met a director who was cranking out films for Roger Corman and had a new horror movie premiering at the end of the market, did I want to see it? Sure! Though I didn't know anything about this director, I did know about Roger Corman. He's responsible for giving half of Hollywood their start. Francis Ford Coppola make DEMENTIA 13 for Corman, Jonathan Demme's first film was for Corman, Scorsese made a film for Corman, Ron Howard directed car crash films for Corman, John Millius wrote some biker films for Corman, Jack Nicholson wrote and starred in a bunch of Corman films, and one of my screen writing idols, John Sayles, began his screen writing career with a string of great scripts for Roger Corman films. Corman gives raw talent a way to break into the business - like a film internship. The only drawback - he doesn't pay much (but it's better than working at Kinkos copies or McDonalds). This director had a particularly colorful Corman story - he'd began as a janitor at the company and worked his way up to director. I wondered what kind of movie a janitor might make.

After making some more good connections - even passing out some scripts - the end of the week rolled around, and the screening of the janitor-director's film. I bumped into the director and I got to tell him about my scripts on the way to the screening. He asked to read one - but told me most of the films he did for Corman were shot on existing sets. He was sort of the B Team - after the A Team had finished a film, he would shoot on their sets. Interesting.

We get into the theater and I see what kind of film a janitor makes... It had a funny script that poked fun at the horror genre, but the direction was crude.

Afterwards the director asked what I'd thought... more thinking on my feet! I told him I thought it was funny and mentioned a couple of the places where the direction was okay. I lied a little.

A couple of months later I got a call from the director. The A Team would wrap shooting a film tonight, could I show up at 6am, tour the set, then pitch him the best story I could come up with using that set at 7am? Sure! Why so early? Well, there was still a day left on the construction crew's contract, and if the set couldn't be reused they'd have them use that day to tear it down. Corman loved to save money by getting every last minute of labor out of his crew. I told him I'd tour the set at 6am and see him at 7am.

I'm not a morning guy. The last time I saw 6am was when I stayed up all night. The big challenge was going to be waking up and staying awake.

The next morning I drive out to "The Lumberyard", Roger Corman's studio in Venice. Venice is a beach community with a row of trendy shops and restaurants... and a really ugly industrial section where the city's bus repair yard and a couple of junk yards compete with overgrown vacant lots of "City's Greatest Eyesore" prize. The Lumberyard is a couple of old warehouse-style buildings surrounded by mounds of old sets and props. Parts of plywood rocket ships and sections of fake castle walls and parts from a plastic mini-sub mock-up. It looked like the junkyard at the end of time. I parked in the lot and the head of the construction crew opened the door for me and pointed out the sets: about five rooms.

You've probably never seen a set in natural light. They look fake. I once toured the STAR TREK set on the Paramount lot, and it looks like it's made out of plywood and Styrofoam (it is). When we shot GRID RUNNERS, the cloning lab was the old operating theater at a run-down mental institution. The construction guys painted only the places that would show on camera, and did a slap-dash job. It looked like an abandoned building... but from the right angle with the right lighting looked like a high tech cloning lab. All of the things that looked fake in real life looked real on film.

The set at The Lumberyard was no different. It was a futuristic night club, a spaceship interior, and a high tech office complex of some sort. Most of it was made out of Styrofoam hot dog and hamburger containers - like the kind your Big Mac used to come in. Sheets of these Styrofoam containers covered plywood walls, adding texture. They were painted a metal gray color, and didn't look like hamburger containers at all.

But the Big Mac container walls reminded me of what I'd be doing if I didn't land this job. As I toured the set, drinking coffee and brainstorming, I came up with a fantastic idea. Each section of the set added to that idea. Hey - I had a great lead character, a high concept conflict, some big emotional scenes, and a way to make use that nightclub set for a couple of pivotal action-packed scenes. By 7am, I was fully caffeinated and ready to pitch my great idea to the director.

The director breezed in at 7:05 and I sat him down and pitched him my brilliant idea. The coffee was really kicking in by then, and I gave one of the most passionate pitches of my career. I explained the lead character's emotional conflict, and how he was forced to deal with it when this amazing event happens that thrust the entire world into danger. I told him about the fantastic action scenes that would take place in the night club set, and this chase I'd come up with for this long hallway, and a big romantic scene with the leading lady where the hero professes his undying love for him, then she breaks his heart by betraying him in a major plot twist. I could see him imagining every scene and knew I had him.

After I was finished he sat there for a while, thinking about the pitch. Thinking about the characters. Imagining the scenes. Imagining himself directing the scenes. He nodded a few times, thinking it over. Then he turned to the lurking construction guy, smiled, and said: Strike it!

The crew began tearing down the set.

By the time I left, it was half torn down!

A couple of days later I got a call from another producer I'd met - he wanted to buy my TREACHEROUS script. I wouldn't have to work at McDonald's after all!

- Bill


TUESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Chasing Movie Trends... a *brand new^ 2k+ script tip using BEOWULF and 300 as examples.
WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Edge Defines Substance... a 2k+ rewrite of a tip that hasn't run since 2000... using DELIVERANCE as prime example.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Chinese food at Three Brothers in Pleasant Hill, CA.

Movies: AMERICAN GANGSTER. I thought it was dull. I know, it's Steve Zaillian, so I should love it... but I didn't. People have asked me about the structure - the idea of cop and crook stories that come together at the end. That's been done a million times, the best of them is HEAT. In HEAT the cop (Al Pacino) and the crook (Robert DeNiro) really only have one scene together... and it's one hell of a scene. Compare that scene to the Denzel/Crowe scene in GANGSTER.

If you look at HEAT, there are three stories:

1) The cop chasing the crook. From early on Pacino is chasing the wrecking crew guys, trying to get a bead on them, following them, spying on them... interacting with them in some way. In GANGSTER Crowe is after drug dealers, and targeting Blue Magic... but we mostly see the big board and not much actual invesigation on his part. Eventually we have the undercover buy... that takes us to the dirty cops rather than Denzel. So it's really a dead end. Not much actual pusuit or police work in GANGSTER.

2) The crook's life. Here's where HEAT totally kicks ass over GANGSTER. Early on, DeNiro gives his big rule for surviving as an armed robber - "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." This rule makes him a man alone (who claims he's not lonely, but who does he think he's fooling?). Right after he reveals this rule he meets a woman in a book store and begins a relationship. This creates a great conflict - we want DeNiro to find love and have a relationship... but we know this violates his big rule (and that rule is there for a reason). So we are torn. Should he keep her? Dump her? And as the police close in - the *relationship* is in jeopardy. The crook's life story is directly tied tothe cop & crook story!

In GANGSTER they attempt to contrast Denzel as the family man with Crowe as the guy losing his family in a divorce... but there is no *conflict* in either story. Denzel just rises to power and brings his family along. Sure, there's a quick scene with a brother who screws up, but there is no drama *built in* to his story. He just rises to power.

If you just compare the Denzel part of the story to a movie like SCARFACE (either version) it's also the lesser film. In SCARFACE with have Tony coming to America with nothing and struggling to work his way to the top. Denzel *starts out* as Bumpy's right hand man - the #2 guy - and after Bumpy is killed becomes the #1 guy. Now, he's more intelligent than Bumpy and manages to build his empire... but it's a pre-existing empire. Not as dramatic as starting with nothing. Hey, I'm not even going to mention the wife/sister emotional conflicts in SCARFACE. So, even if we just look at the gangster side of the story, GANGSTER is lacking the drama and emotional conflicts that other gangster movies have.

Okay, and now let's compare the *crimes* these crooks are involved in. Denzel is basically on the phone making deals, or in Thailand making deals. Neither is exciting. The most excitment we get in Denzel's story is when he blows away a rival during lunch. DeNiro is involved in *armed robbery* and we not only get that great set piece robbery and shoot out, we get all kinds of action along the way. Shoot outs. Suspense. Chases. Now, Denzel's story could have focused on the action side of his business (a previous version of this story, Larry Cohen's BLACK CEASAR*, focused on the war between the black crime lord and the Mafia), but it focused on the businessman side. You may say, "Hey - that's the story!" but watching a guy make phone calls is boring. Not the best choice for a story.

3) The cop's life. In HEAT Pacino is having the same kind of relationship issues as Crowe in GANGSTER... but those problems are tied to the cop chases crook story. Every time Pacino needs to spend time with his wife or daughter, the case comes up and he has to dump them (creating big dramatic conflicts). Compare this to Crowe, who gets a bunch of fairly dull scenes in court getting a divorce and then *not* fighting for joint custody of his daughter. Crowe doesn't even try to keep his relationship going - which makes his life non-dramatic.

Now, you may say: "Hey - based on a true story. What choice did they have?" Well, no story on film is really true - everything gets dramatized... and the other folks who were involved seem to think Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts exaggerated everything and made them the stars... when there were two other major black crime lords in New York at the time (one doesn't even get mentioned in the film - and that is the guy who, up until this film, was seen as the #1 black crime lord of all time). If they fudged some major things in the story, why not fudge some minor ones and make it more dramatic? Instead of starting out with Richie's marriage on the rocks, why not show it disintegrating (more dramatic) throughout the film?

AMERICAN GANGSTER is an epic style film with two great actors and it looks good and tells a story... but comes off like a dull documentary. Not a bad movie, just kind of a ho-hum one.

Movies: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. A great idea... blandly executed. Lots of action, but it comes off kind of ho-hum. Two reasons for this:

1) No theme. There's a point in this film where Josh Hartnett says they can defeat the vampires because they know the town and they know the cold. Except that never plays out in the movie at all. There's another point where they talk about how the town is filled with non-conformists like Mark Boone Junior's character... but that really doesn't mean anything either. Maybe it's because there were 3 screenwriters - and they all may have been working against each other as far as theme was concerned. But the film comes off as being a nice collection of human vs. vampire action scenes that don't really add up to anything. By the end of the film, you feel vaguely unsatisfied, and may not be able to put your finger on what was wrong. Well, the film wasn't about anything. It didn't contrast one set of values with another.

2) No plan. There's a Terry Rossio article that I haven't read in probably a decade about "magnificent failure". CE who used to be on the Done Deal boards used to call this the "hopes & fears" in a story. Here's my version - your characters need to have a plan, and we need to know what that plan is and really hope that they succeed (and survive the vampires)... and then, as they struggle to make that plan work, things go wrong... and we fear that they will be killed by the vampires. That's what makes a film exciting - the plan that can save them, and how it goes wrong bit-by-bit. Remove the plan, and you have people just doing stuff. Nothing to hope for. And we can't fear the plan will go wrong, if there isn't one.

30 DAYS has characters who kind of make up their plan as they go along. In the beginning, they come up with this idea to go to the power plant place with the grinder that seems to exist only so that they can eventually throw a vampire into it... but they decide that's too far. So they go to a local house attic to hide out. And no one discovers them. They say at one point that vampires are searching the houses, but they don't search the house they're in until after other events have happend to bring them there.

Now, eventually they do decide to go to that power plant place - but that's the end of the movie. The small plans they come up with along the way are so vague we can't tell if the plans worked or not. They need to go to the storee to get some "supplies" - but what those suppies are and the gathering of the supplies is just a bland scene. We don't know exactly what they need, nor how things will go really really wrong if they fail - no stakes for that scene. It ends up more of a change of scenery than a scene. Getting there doesn't even have a failure factor or much of a plan. The way scenes like this work - it is important for one character to survive, and important to retrieve one specific item that will save their lives. The guy who can make that specific item work is the guy who must survive. Now, we have two chances for the plan to fail... and two things for us to worry about in the scene. We get one thing, but not the other. That allows the plan to succeed and fail at the same time. That creates a new conflict which requires a new plan and has a new chance for us to hope and fear that they will fail.

And by the time we get to the end of 30 DAYS, I think all logic goes out the window.

DVDs: *Resaw Larry Cohen's $300k version of AMERICAN GANGSTER called BLACK CEASAR. Crude, shot without permits on the streets of New York - often with hidden cameras and real people as extras, but juicy as hell. The rise of a poor shoe-shine boy who earns spare change working for gangsters to the most powerful gangster in New York - a Black man who is more powerful than the Mafia... yet, seems powerless when faced with his mother and trophy wife. He buys his mother the home she works in as a maid - then kicks out the rich white folks who live there and throws their clothes out onto the street. He is dogged by a corrupt cop - the cop who crippled him as a kid - and eventually gets tired of paying endless bribes and blows up the cop's prized possession... and when that doesn't work, forces the corrupt cop to cover his face with the shoe polish from the gangster's childhood shoe shine kit then treats the corrupt cop to his own racism before killing him. And no shortage of Black gang vs. Mafia action. (BLACK CEASAR is actually the story of Frank Matthews - the guy who *really* ran the Black crime family in New York.) Kind of a down & dirty, cheap movie... that's more exciting than the big budget version. No one making this film thought they were going to win an Oscar - they just wanted people in the cinema to have a good time.

Pages: Wednesday's new Script Tip, some outline work on a spec project about a Blackwater-like group (that will use lots of the research I did on THE BASE - none of which ended up in the crappy movie with that title).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Trailer Tuesday: TOUCH OF EVIL

TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) (re-cut version)
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver.
Writer: Orson Welles based on novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.
Director: Orson Welles

Almost sixty years after its initial release, a recut version of Orson Welles' classic film noir is back on the screen, fifteen minutes longer... darker, more evil than ever before.

Based on the 58 page memo Orson Welles sent to studio chief Edward Muhl after seeing Universal's cut down version, resorter Rick Schmidlin, Oscar winning editor Walter Murch, and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum have created the film as Welles envisioned it. A posthumous director's cut.

The plot of TOUCH OF EVIL plays as if it were written yesterday. A Mexican district attorney (Charlton Heston!) takes time out from prosecuting a drug cartel to get married. While on honeymoon with his sexy American wife (Janet Leigh) they witness a car-bomb murder. While Heston helps the bordertown detective (Orson Welles) with the investigation, Leigh is taken to a motel for safe keeping. Some honeymoon. Detective Welles instantly finds a suspect, searches his apartment, and finds two sticks of dynamite... But Heston KNOWS the evidence was planted, and that Welles is framing the poor Mexican shoe clerk for the crime. While Heston is busy compiling proof that Welles is a corrupt cop, the drug cartel kidnaps Leigh. Now Heston must rescue his wife AND find the evidence which will bring down crooked cop Welles.

This may sound like a typical cop drama, but Welles turns it into a tour de force, taking us into the strip clubs, whorehouses, and dark twisted alleys of the border town. Creating nightmare images so vivid, you can practically smell the raw sewage in the canal that runs through the slums. In 1950s America, at a time when Beaver was Ward and June's son, the raw sexuality sweating from every enlarged pore of this film must have been more than shocking. The grimy streets, the gang-bangs with bull- dyke gang girls who want to stay and watch. "Hold her legs!" Even the phone sex between a lingerie clad Leigh (looking good enough to eat) and Heston at a store's public phone is given the added perverse twist of having the blind store owner listening to every word... and smiling. This is the type of twisted film David Lynch wishes he could make.

Welles was constantly pushing the limits of film making, and you'd be hard pressed to find a director working today who could pull off half the amazing shots in this film. Visually TOUCH OF EVIL would be innovating if it had been made today, and many of the filmic elements we take for granted had their roots in this film.

The most obvious change in the recut version is the famous 3 minute opening tracking shot (the subject of the opening scene in THE PLAYER). In the old version, Universal used this shot as a title sequence, destroying the suspense and obscuring the amazing camera work. The re-cut removes the titles, so that you can see everything clearly. This amazing shot opens with an assassin setting a bomb timer for 3 minutes. The assassin spots the victim, then races to the victim's car and plants the bomb in the trunk, darting into the shadows just as the victim turns the corner. Then the camera pulls to a high overhead as the victim drives away. The camera follows overhead as the victim drives through town, lowering to street level as the victim waits for a couple (Heston & Leigh) to cross the street. Suspense builds as Heston & Leigh walk on the street next to the car with the ticking bomb. At the border checkpoint, both Heston & Leigh and the car with the bomb are stopped for the usual round of boring questions. Tick. Tick. Tick. Heston & Leigh are allowed through the border at the same time as the car. It's when Heston & Leigh stop to kiss that the car zooms away... and explodes into the sky. ALL of this is done in one continuous shot.

Like nothing you have ever seen before.

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Another amazing shot you may miss if you aren't watching carefully. It's so effortless, so smooth, you don't even realize you're watching one of the most difficult shots ever put on film. At the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a LONG continuous shot (X minutes) where the camera moves from room to room following Heston. In order to do this shot, the apartment set was built with break away walls and furniture on wheels. The camera glides through the apartment effortlessly, through a team of police investigators, into the bedroom, into a minuscule bathroom where Heston washes his face, then retraces its steps back to the living room through the crowd of investors to the front door of the building. More complicated than the long takes in Hitchcock's ROPE because of the break away walls, moving furniture, and sheer number of actors the camera must jockey around while maintaining a smooth glide.

Every frame of the film is meticulously composed by Welles and his DP Russell Metty (the camera operator was Philip Lathrop, who would go on to do amazing DP work himself in films like POINT BLANK). Giant shadows on buildings chase characters through the street. Deep focus makes hunter and prey clearly visible in the same shot, even though they are hundreds of feet away from each other. Characters are shown in shadow, from low angles, often with the neon from honky-tonk bar signs strobing across their faces. A scene in a file room using deep focus to underscore the amazing composition obtained when certain file drawers in the room have been pulled out, turning the shot into a fascinating visual puzzle.

One shot you may not notice is the conversation between Heston and an American District Attorney in a car moving through the back alleys of town at 60 mph. At the time this shot would normally have been done as rear projection, but Welles mounts the camera on the car and has Heston drive like a mad man. No stunt double. That's Charlton tearing through town, zipping through intersections without even slowing down.

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Though the rec-cut version is a vast improvement over the studio's 96 minute trimmed down version, the problems with TOUCH OF EVIL remain the same. The parallel plots seem unfocused, Leigh's kidnapping taking away much of the power of Heston trying to bring down Welles' corrupt chief detective. The plotting is light: we are given little in the way of actual investigation into the frame ups, Heston just goes into a file room and comes out with evidence. Lastly, there's Heston's performance as a Mexican District Attorney: he's laughably unbelievable.

But the amazing work by Welles as an actor (fat, ugly, sad), Joseph Calleia as his second in command (not wanting to believe that "the cop who taught him everything" might be a monster), Valentin De Vargas as the handsome gang member who organizes the gang-bang, Dennis Weaver as the whacked out motel night man who can't think of woman and bed at the same time without getting flustered, and Akim Tamiroff as the crime lord with the bad toupee make this film memorable.

The rocking score by Henry Mancini uses Afro-Cuban rhythms and seems as modern as the theme Mancini would write for PETER GUNN the following year. And the pianola music that plays in Marlene Dietrich's whore house sticks in your mind for days. Dietrich, as the madam who was Welles' lover twenty years and sixty pounds ago gets all of the great lines:

"You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars."

Welles amazing direction and Metty's crisp, styling camera work are more modern, more innovative, than anything you will see today. After almost sixty years, TOUCH OF EVIL is more powerful than ever.


Article on the restoration: PURE EVIL

Monday, September 28, 2015

Lancelot Link: Novelties

Lancelot Link Monday! This week's links begin and end with Hitchcock, but in between are several links about the art of mystery and horror writing, with all kinds of tips from some of the top writers in the field... who are long dead! But their advice still works, right? Also a link to an article about self publishing novels, which tends to get a bit wonkish... but if you start with the bullet points you'll get most of the important information. So, maybe you you try writing a mystery novel? While you're considering that, here are this week's links to some great screenwriting and film articles, plus some fun stuff that may be of interest to you. Brought to you by that suave and sophisticated secret agent...

Here are a baker's dozen links plus this week's car chase...

1) Weekend Box Office Estimates:
1 Hotel Tranny 2.................. $47,500,000
2 Intern.......................... $18,225,000
3 Maze Runner: Larry Storch....... $14,000,000
4 Everest......................... $13,090,000
5 Black Mass...................... $11,510,000
6 Visit............................ $6,750,000
7 Perfect Guy...................... $4,750,000
8 War Room......................... $4,275,000
9 Green Inferno.................... $3,494,000
10 Sicario.......................... $1,770,000

2) MARNIE's Diane Baker On Hitchcock & Actors.

3) Interview With Nancy Meyers (THE INTERN) On Screenwritring.

2) Cinematographer Roger Deakins On Shooting SICARIO.

5) 2 Hour Interview With Robert Rodriguez On Indie Filmmaking.

6) Interview With Robert Zemeckis (THE WALK, BACK TO THE FUTURE).

7) The WARRIORS Come Out To Play Once More.

8) That Wacky Version Of ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU From The FX Crew's POV.

9) Should You Self Publish A Book?

10) 11 Tips From Horror Writers.

11) Raymond Chandler's (THE BIG SLEEP) Ten Rules For Writing A Novel.

12) S.S. Van Dine's (PHILO VANCE Novels, Lots Of Movies Based On Them) 20 Rules For Writing Detective Novels.

13) Hitchcock's YOUNG AND INNOCENT Novelist Josephine Tey - The Mystery Of The Writer.

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

From Hitchcock's final film.


Buy The DVDs

Friday, September 25, 2015

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Screenplay by Norman Krasna.

There are no cross-dressing killers, no stolen microfilm, no man wrongly accused of a crime in this Hitchcock film - it’s a standard rom-com. Weird, huh? I have seen all of the Hitchcock films on the big screen including this one - a non-thriller - but I have to admit I saw MR. & MRS. SMITH decades ago on a Hitchcock triple bill and it was the last film playing and, well, I may have fallen asleep. I have not see it since, and never owned it on VHS and did not own it on DVD... and worried that it might suck. Did I really want to buy the DVD? I mean, spending $15 for THE PARADINE CASE was a waste of money, but I could chalk it off to being a completist, right? I mean, it may be lame, but it is still kind of a thriller. MR & MRS SMITH is a rom-com, a chick flick...

So I grabbed my Hitchcock/Truffaut to see what Hitch said about it... and he says nada! When Truffaut brings up the film, Hitch tells an amusing anecdote about Carole Lombard and then changes the subject. The only thing he really says about the film was that it was a favor to Lombard and he just followed the script. Did I really want to buy this on DVD?

Worse - the film was part of a $99 box set and I owned all of the other movies but one. Sure, I could get it at Amazon for $70... but I didn’t want to spend anything near that much for a rom-com that probably put me to sleep the last time I saw it. Damn this blog!

Then I discovered that there were 3rd party vendors who had probably bought the set, broken it up and sold all of the popular films (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, NORTH BY NORTHWEST) and were now stuck with MR. & MRS. SMITH... and were selling it for $4. Deal.

Here’s the thing - this is a typical 1940s rom-com, funny, charming, and good. I think if Hitchcock had *not* directed it, people would love it and put it up there with THE AWFUL TRUTH and HIS GIRL FRIDAY. But the Hitchcock audience isn’t really the rom-com audience and vice-versa... so people haven’t given it a chance. I thought it was fun.

Nutshell: David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann Smith (the beautiful Carole Lombard) are a passionately married Manhattan couple... and have rules that will keep them married. That passion thing is great when things are going well in the relationship, but when things go wrong they are just as passionate and throw things at each other. So they have the rules - one of which is that no one can leave the bedroom after a fight until they have made up. Problem is, this cuts into David’s work week sometimes (he’s a lawyer). They can stay angry at each other for a loooong time!

Another rule is that after they’ve made up, each gets to ask the other a question... and they must answer honestly. Note to men in a relationship: this is a trap. No woman ever wants you to answer honestly (“Yes, those jeans make your ass look *massive*!”) they want to hear the lie that makes them feel good. So David makes a huge mistake by answering that he misses being single and probably wouldn’t marry Ann if he had to do it all over again. He loves her, he can’t live without her, but probably wouldn’t marry her again. She doesn’t like this answer, but they’re married, so the point is moot, right?

When a clerk (Charles Halton) from the town they were married in tells David that one of those only-in-the-movies clerical errors has nullified their marriage, he thinks for a moment that this may be his chance for freedom. The clerk was a childhood friend of Ann’s, stops by their apartment to visit and lets slip that she isn’t really married to David. Ann expects him to re-propose that very night and whisk her away to a Justice Of The Peace to go through the vows again. Her mother forbids her from sleeping with David until they are once again married. That night, David takes her to the cozy little restaurant where he first proposed... which is now a dump... and Ann thinks he’s going to pop the question. But he doesn’t. When they get home he chills some champagne. Um, now he can pop the question - but how will they get to a Justice of the Peace? When David gets into his silk Pjs, Ann blows her top. He expects her to sleep together even though they are not married? She throws him out.

David is sure that Ann will come crawling back to him... but that does not happen. Instead she finds a job and begins dating again.

Then Ann hooks up with David’s partner Jefferson (Gene Raymond) - a deep fried Southern Gentleman, and it looks like they’re getting engaged to be married! When David objects, Ann notes that she is not his wife, and legally has never been his wife - he has no claim on her.

David realizes he may fantasize about being single again, but the reality sucks! He *must* break up Jefferson’s relationship with Ann and win her back!

Experiment: Well, it is a rom-com. By this time Hitchcock was firmly established as the Master Of Suspense - he’d become famous in England for his thrillers like THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES... and that’s why he was brought to America. But Carole Lombard was a friend, was a huge movie star, and wanted to do a film with Hitchcock... so he made a rom-com. The anecdote he told Truffaut was about his first day on the set - when he arrived there were three little cattle pens with a calf in each - wearing a name tag on its collar with the names of the stars. Lombard’s joke (she and her husband Clark Gable were notorious practical jokers - and the most tragic tale in CITY OF NETS is about the joke that preceded Lombard’s death in a plane crash, which devastated Gable). So - it’s a rom-com.

Hitch Appearance: When David and Jefferson come out of Ann's building together, then go in opposite directions, Hitchcock walks in front of the building.

Great Scenes: Let’s look at some rom-com things and other lessons that we can apply to any screenplay, starting with...

Story Point Of View: A common complaint about recent rom-coms is that they seem to be about the guy - KNOCKED UP seems to focus on Seth Rogen’s point of view instead of split equally between the couple. Well, it seems like that’s nothing new, as the lead character in MR. & MRS. SMITH is not Carole Lombard, or even Lombard & Montgomery... it’s Robert Montgomery. The film opens with Lombard in bed pretending to be asleep after a spat, and Montgomery tries to slyly get her attention with funny faces and hijinks (which come off charming rather than lame). This scene is not only told from his POV, some of the shots are his POV... and this continues throughout the film. Though I think you *can* have a rom-com where each member of the couple trades off as protagonist; it seems that in the end, one or the other is dominant (the “main protagonist”). That’s what happens here...

But whether one character is the protagonist or two, each scene takes a side and shows it from that character’s point of view. When Ann is waiting for David to pop the question at dinner... and then later at home... those scenes all take her side. We are not neutral in those scenes, we are given the information to understand her character and we see the scene from her side of the dispute... but not his. We know her plan is to accept when he re-proposes... but we have no idea what David’s plan is. Did he plan on proposing at the little restaurant? What’s his plan when he slips into his Pjs? We do not know - but we do know that her plan is *not* to sleep with him until they are married again. We have taken her side in this sequence. And there is a great reason for this - it creates drama and suspense. If we know everything, it’s dull - like knowing how a movie ends. We want to *use* POV to create intrigue. Since knowing David’s intentions remove the suspense from the scene, we take Ann’s side and keep David’s intentions secret. After she kicks David out, we take his side for most of the rest of the movie.

Do you know who is the “lead character” in each of your scenes... and why?

Visual Symbols: A picture is worth a thousand words. After that opening scene spat has been resolved, there is a scene where Ann shaves David with a straight razor. You may wonder what the heck that is all about, but the answer is - it *shows* the trust between them with an intimate act. We can’t exactly show them hitting the sheets in 1941 (and that may even be tonally wrong for 2010) but we can show them doing something together that is personal... and that also shows trust and seems domestic - you wouldn’t let your best friend do this, but you might let your wife. Again, there are a million things that might show two people comfortable with each other in an intimate situation - but what can we show in 1941?

The great thing about the shaving scene is that it not only shows trust and intimacy and comfort with each other now, it is actually a set up for a later payoff near the end that shows Ann recovering her trust and comfort with David. When we see her shave his unconscious body (okay - weird), we realize that they are going to get back together. And David, who is not really unconscious, trusts her not to use the razor on him.

A visual symbol that is designed for a laugh: After being kicked out, David goes to his club which has hotel style rooms available for men who have been kicked out of the house (and maybe bachelors between apartments). There is a board with room keys on it, several empty hooks *with name cards over them* because some poor slob got into a fight with the wife and is now living there. David has to ask the clerk if there is a room available, and the clerk makes a big deal about saying that David has never asked for one of the room keys in the entire time he has been a club member. Then makes a big deal about grabbing the key and giving it to David - this is a *moment*. David and Ann never leave the apartment until they have made up... and now David has been kicked out. The key is symbolic of this being a major problem in the relationship, not just a little bump.

But the great thing is that the key becomes a running gag that gets a laugh (well, from me) every time they show it. David spends the whole day trying to win Ann back, and just when you think she may forgive him... he’s back at the club getting that room key. - Eventually the board of keys has his name on a card over one key.

There are many other little visual symbols in the film - like Ann replacing the name plaque on the apartment door with a card with her maiden name - David keeps tearing it down every time he goes to the apartment and there is always a new one when he comes back. And, um, there’s a pair of skis at the end that, um, seem kind of symbolic of a successful re-honeymoon.

Symbolic Supporting Characters: The other symbolic thing are some of the supporting characters. When David checks into the room in the club, he is now one of the guys who got kicked out of the house by their wives for a variety of reasons. The character he hangs out with is Big Chuck (Jack Carson) who is constantly being kicked out by the wife, and offers David some advice on what to do to get her back if it was a minor infraction... and how to have a good time as a temporary bachelor if you end up with an extended stay at the club. In a way, Big Chuck is a married guy’s fantasy of bachelorhood - he drinks and smokes and whores around and doesn’t care what the wife says. He’s on a “marriage vacation”... and that is kind of David’s fantasy, isn’t it?

Big Chuck *symbolizes* David’s fantasy of being a single guy again, but still with the safety net of being married. He is an externalization of what David is thinking. You want to find the external and concrete visual way to show what’s going on in a character’s heart or mind - and Big Chuck is the kind of guy David wishes he was. That way, we can have David interact with his wish (instead of just having him think - which we can not see) and a great deal of comedy comes from the fantasy version being different than the reality version.

Something else that David and every other married man fantasizes about? Those hot single women out there! Big Chuck sets up a double date - setting up David with a hot single woman who will “show him a good time” (we all know what that means). But the fantasy is not the same as the reality - and David’s date is a loud uneducated bottle blonde who gulps champagne as if were water and smokes like a factory. You fantasize about slutty women and that’s what you get. What makes this scene great is that they are in a fancy restaurant (in contrast to the women) and guess who are a few tables over? Ann and Jefferson. So we get a direct comparison between David’s wife and the single woman David hopes to score with. Um, the sure thing never looked so bad!

This is also a good example of escalation of conflict within a scene. You think once David meets his date that things can't get worse. Then the date starts ordering half the menu. Then she's so loud and obnoxious that everyone in the restaurant is starring at them. Then Ann and Jefferson spot them. And it *keeps* getting worse!

There’s a great gag in this scene where David realizes that Ann is looking in his direction and moves his chair so that he seems to be sitting with the elegant woman at the next table... which works until her husband comes back. David ends up with a broken nose - which should be a good way to get the hell out of the restaurant... except his date used to date a boxer and knows all of the tricks for stopping a nose bleed. Right in the middle of the elegant restaurant. This is the date from hell! Instead of just being the bad situation, things keep happening that makes it worse and worse and worse - it's like Indiana Jones in the treasure cave in RAIDERS as a date! Just when you think it could never get any worse...

Does the conflict continue to escalate in your scenes. Once you have the bad situation, what are all of the things that make it worse?

Bellamys: One of the standard characters in a romantic comedy is the “Bellamy”, named after Ralph Bellamy from HIS GIRL FRIDAY. This is also a symbolic character - in a rom-com the couple splits up or maybe even has never been together in the first place... so how do you *show* that the love interest is *rejecting* the protagonist? At the end, how do you *show* that the love interest is *choosing* the protagonist? What you need is a romantic rival - someone who symbolizes a life for the love interest without the protagonist. Enter The Bellamy (which sounds like a really weird Kung Fu film). This is the guy or gal the love interest is either already engaged to or begins dating after the break up. A physical thing that gets in the protag’s way of winning the love interest back. The strangest Bellamy ever is Otto the blow up pilot in AIRPLANE! Usually it is someone who is the opposite of the protagonist in some way.

Where David in MR. & MRS. SMITH is impulsive and passionate and his life is kind of a mess, Jefferson is conservative and well mannered and steady as a rock. Jefferson will put Ann on a pedestal and treat her like a lady - always polite and quiet and calm. He symbolizes a relationship for Ann that is quiet and safe and predictable. The opposite of David. This takes a decision that is in Ann’s head: wild passion or safe predictability, and puts it on screen where we can see it. Without the Jefferson character, we could not see what she was thinking. There is actually an early scene with Ann sitting in the center of the sofa with a man at either end verbally fighting for her.

The great thing about a Bellamy character is that it not only shows us the choices the love interest makes, it also brings out the character of the protagonist (and the Bellamy). It is easier to see how wild David is when we have Jefferson to compare him with. Jefferson is the perfect Southern gentleman, always opening doors, always polite, always quiet... and that helps to highlight David’s unpredictable behavior. There’s an early scene at the law office where David has neglected his work and Jefferson has been covering for him. Without Jefferson, we wouldn’t see how David was *supposed to be* at work. All of the wild passionate things that David does would just seem romantic without Jefferson to show us a different sort of romance that seems much more practical.

And that is the big choice Ann has to make: security or passion?

If You Know What I Mean Subtext: David doesn’t make that decision easy. He doesn’t understand how he became suddenly single. Sure, he admitted to Ann that he secretly wished he were single again, but now that he’s single the only thing he wants is to be married to Ann again... and she’s off with some other guy... and not just any other guy, his *business partner*! So he begins a series of schemes to get her back again.

One of the more amusing schemes is some “obvious subtext” - when David discovers that Jefferson plans on *marrying* Ann, and is going to introduce her to his very conservative Southern parents, David crashes the meeting. Jefferson’s parents do not know that Ann is David’s ex-wife (well, they were never actually married), and think this is just some woman their son is dating. So when David butts into the meeting, Jefferson’s parents introduce him to Ann... and he says they have already met...

Then begins a series of clever bits of dialogue that are designed to be misunderstood by Jefferson’s parents. David says he’s seen a great deal of Ann - implying that he’s seen her naked, yet never actually saying that. David talks about how Ann is great at serving breakfast in bed. Line after line! Everything seems innocent, but these lines are designed to lead the other person to jump to that guilty conclusion. It’s a strange sort of subtext, because we are meant to understand the hidden meaning, as are the other characters in the scene... yet nothing is said directly. Jefferson’s parents eventually grab their son and take him into the next room - the bathroom, for humor - and ask what sort of woman this Ann is... and what is her relationship to his business partner?

Jefferson manages to put out that fire... which leads to a vacation with Jefferson, his parents, and Ann in a ski lodge. And David follows them, and starts more schemes, eventually placing Ann in the position where she must make a choice between these two types of men, and these two specific men... and then David does something that causes Ann to raise her legs up and cross her skis.

Sound Track: Excellent! A great whimsical score by Edward Ward performed by human lips - whistling. The music adds to the film and never gets in the way of the film.

Though MR. & MRS. SMITH is not a typical Hitchcock film, it is a pretty good romantic comedy from that period and both Lombard and Montgomery are charming and fun. I thought this entry was going to be more painful to write than it was - I really enjoyed the movie. If you are a fan of old rom-coms, check it out.

- Bill


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