Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Dead Of Night (1945)

James Wan who directed SAW has a thing about killer puppet movies, and I'll bet it can all be traced back to seeing this film as a kid on TV. I know *my* fear of killer puppets stems from this, and the knowledge that Grover on Sesame Street is really a serial killer. But all of the ventriloquist dummy movies like William Goldman's MAGIC come from this creepy film.

Dead Of Night (1945)
Directed by: Cavalcanti ("Christmas Party", "The Ventriloquist's Dummy"), Charles Crichton ("Golfing Story"), Basil Dearden ("Hearse Driver", "Linking Narrative"), Robert Hamer ("The Haunted Mirror")
Written by: John Baines & Angus MacPhail.
Starring: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Googie Withers.

An architect arrives at a country estate and has a strange feeling of deja vu. The group of people at the estate each tell stories of terror... while the architect's deja vu increases. Has he been here before? He feels as if he has heard each story before... and feels like something terrible will happen when the last tale has been told. Each of the stories is frightening, but the ventriloquist and the dummy that controls him is the one most people remember...



The cast is worth noting, since most of them were in Hitchcock's LADY VANISHES. Not only do we get a variation on Caldecott & Charters, we get Bridesmaid Googie Withers and leading man Michael Redgrave! It's the whole gang! The cast is great, the film is spooky... yet realistic enough that you believe everything that happens no matter how crazy. The film was from Ealing Studios, famous for comedies... but this may be their most famous non-comedy film.




Five great stories of terror, with the "wrap" at the country house with our group. Directed by 4 different directors.
1) "Christmas Party" is about a girl at a Christmas Party who finds a hidden staircase that leads to...
2) "The Haunted Mirror" is about an newlywed couple - the wife buys a mirror that is... haunted.
3) "The Hearse Driver" is about a man who dreams a hearse drives by him and the driver says: "There's room for one more"... and then his dream seems to come true.
4) "Golfing Story" is about two golfers (Wayne & Radford) make a bet on the golf course - winner gets to marry the girl they both love, and the loser must die.
5) "The Ventriloquist" is the most frightening of all, about a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is out to get him... and he is.
Often stories like this peter out at the end, but DEAD OF NIGHT has an ending that will give you nightmares!

"There's room for one more."

- Bill

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Black Christmas (1974)

Before there was John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN there was Bob Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS - the original "We've traced the call... it's coming from INSIDE the house!" movie. I caught this at a drive in on a double bill with Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE - and IT'S ALIVE was the "A" feature! But this film really creeped me out, and also had me laughing outloud. Margot Kidder's phone number had me laughing for months - because this was a time when people didn't say things like that in the movies.



But the main thing about BLACK CHRISTMAS is that it's spooky and probably the first "kill a bunch of people in a house" movie. Okay, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was released the same year, so it may have technically been the second movie with that basic plot - but BLACK CHRISTMAS is the version of that basic plot that you can trace through HALLOWEEN to SCREAM. In fact, HALLOWEEN began as a sequel to BLACK CHRISTMAS.




The great thing about this film - other than the call coming from inside the house - is the way the characters turn against each other when the bodies begin to pop up. Also a great cast - Olivia Hussey who was Juliet in ROMEO & JULIET plays the lead, Keir Dullea from some damned Kubrick movie was her boyfriend, John Saxon plays the cop in a horror movie for the first time, Andrea Martin from SECOND CITY is one of the gals, Margot Kidder is *hot* as one of the other gals - she had already starred in Brian DePalma's SISTERS and the next year would play the female lead in THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER opposite some guy named Redford. SISTERS is coming up in a couple of days...

What the heck, I love Larry Cohen, so let's look at the trailer for the "A" film on the double bill many years ago...



What I love about Larry Cohen movies is that the guy always has a social or political message in his weirdass horror films. His films like THE STUFF are complete cult flicks, but underneath it all are about something important. Here we have mutant killer babies caused by prescription drug side effects - kind of the ultimate Thalidomide baby. By the time Cohen got to IT'S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE he was doing a cult horror film that dealt with AIDS babies (except they were the killer mutant babies in the series).




He's one of my favorite filmmakers and one of those prolific screenwriters who is hit and miss - but when he hits he knocks it out of the park. Still alive and kicking and making films. He wrote PHONE BOOTH and CELLULAR! His last screenwriting credit was a couple of years ago... but his first writing credit was 1958. Oh, and he created the TV show THE INVADERS.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: EVERY STORY ASKS A QUESTION - Is yours asking the *right* question?
Dinner: Chicken, potatos, corn at Boston Market.
Pages: Almost finished another chapter - but got sidetracked.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
Night Of The Living Dead

One of the other films I first saw on Bob Wilkins' Creature Features was the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – and it freaked me out! I think it freaked out everyone who saw it, and basically created the modern zombie film. Before that, Zombies were from Haiti and under the spell of a Voodoo Priest... after NOTLD zombies were flesh eating undead friends and relatives. The reason this works even today is because it takes regular people and turns them into the monsters. You can not trust *anyone*. The person sitting next to you in the cinema or on the sofa in your living room can turn into a flesh eating goul!



When I was a kid I used to scare the crap out of my little sister by saying “I am the monster!” - and the idea that someone you know and love can suddenly turn into a monster is at the heart of many horror films. In NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Barbara and her brother go to visit their father's grave on the same day a satellite from Venus crashes in the country side and brings the dead back to life... a harmless old man puts the bite on her brother, killing him... Barbara eventually runs into her brother Johnny again - but now he's a mindless zombie with a taste for human flesh. The people who you love have lost their free will and have turned into monsters! "They're dead! They're all messed up!" Some of the other survivors in the farm house, Cooper and his wife, watch their cute little daughter slowly turning into a monster... then she attacks Cooper and eats him! When mom tries to stop her, she attacks and eats her, too. You can't reason with these zombies, all you can do is shoot them in the head or burn them. And if one bites you? You lose your free will and start thinking of your friends and loved ones as lunch. That's a scary core concept!




The other element of NOTLD is the gore factor – which was way beyond anything I had ever seen at that time... and is even pushing the envelope by today's standards. Of course, the guts they eat are animal parts – but even *that* is pretty sick! Though Romero has said the casting of Duane Jones as the lead was not intended to make a racial point, the timing was in the film's favor – it hit at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and showed a hick sheriff killing an innocent African American man – our hero!

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the ultimate in friends turning against you. You can't trust anyone, because they may turn into a zombie. Kids attack and eat their own parents! Don't see it with someone you love... you'll wonder about them later.

- Bill
TODAY'S JACK-O-LANTERN:



IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: HIGH CONCEPT... OR HIGH STAKES? - Global or Personal stakes.
Dinner: Chicken Caesar Salad to make up for all of the junk I've been eating lately.
Pages: Finished a chapter on the Action Book!

Today's Amazon Rank:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The 13 Days Of Halloween:
The Creature From The Black Lagoon

When I was a kid, one of the most scary movies I had ever seen was THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. May have been on Bob Wilkins' Creature Features or on C3PM Theater on KCRA (Sacramento). The movie is really creepy, and uses the water to hide the monster the same way JAWS used the water to hide the shark. You never know when or where it will strike. This feeds right into our fear of the unknown, which is a basic element of horror. Anything that obscures the threat - water, darkness, fog, tall grass - builds our fear.  The film also has great music with some of the earliest use of "stings" - dant-dunt-da! The group of people, isolated, with a monster out there... somewhere... builds dread. Every time someone gets into the water because there's a tree or something in the way of the boat, you worry that the creature will attack. This was one of those movies I watched as a kid with hands covering my eyes - peeking between my fingers.



Not as scary as an adult, but still *fun* - it has some real suspense and real thrills and actually has an environmental message (great shot of a cigarette butt being thrown into the lagoon... camera dips underwater to show the Creature looking up at the butt and garbage floating in his pool). I didn't notice the environmental stuff when I was a kid, and I wonder if the audience in 1954 audience noticed it. It's *very* apparent when watching the film, now. Horror movies were great places to make a point or explore a theme because  they were usually made by the low budget division at the studio and they only cared that they made money. There are many horror films about scientists who fool with Mother Nature with terrifying results, but CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is different in that it focuses on an exploration party basically trashing the environment by throwing out their garbage and polluting the natural environment of a creature... who doesn't much like swimming in cigarette butts. There were two sequels that seemed to miss this point... the second film is watchable, the third seems to be mostly guys sitting around a table on a boat talking.

This is one of those films that people my age saw on TV as kids and remember - which is why Universal keeps trying to remake it (earlier this week they hired a screenwriter - David Kajganich who wrote the unwatchable remake of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman). There have been dozens of previous attempts to remake it, one with Will Smith!



The cheese-fest ANACONDA owes just about everything to this film.

For a while there was a slot machine in Vegas based on BLACK LAGOON, and I always played it because it had clips from the film with some clever quips... and that sting.

I have no idea if kids today would find this scary, or just silly - there's no gore at all... but when people dangle their feet in the water and you know it's down there, that scared the heck out of me when I was young!

- Bill

TODAY'S JACK-O-LANTERN:




Friday, October 17, 2014

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 3.... Was Che A Vampire?

From 2006...

The last exhibit in our little gallery of gore might be called The Man Who Googled Himself... That’s not a very good title, this tale of terror really doesn’t have anything to do with Google - but my sister just sent me this new “game” where you Google the phrase “(Your first name) was arrested for” to find out about your sordid criminal past. You’d be surprised at all the criminal activities you’ve been involved in. You can only play this game once, so it isn’t as good as the Elephant Panty game, where you take two completely non-related words, throw quotes around them, and do a search. Then read all of the weird stuff on the hundred or so websites dedicated to “Sewer Golf” or “Television Trousers” or whatever you’ve looked up.

I Google myself every so often to find out if I’ve been linked to Paris Hilton or if they’ve finally discovered that I’m the father of the TomKat baby. I always run across something even more unbelievable. I might do a 2 hour class on Film Noir and quip that most of the characters in these films wear hats... Only to discover someone who took the class says on their website that “Martell says the main requirement in writing a film noir script is to make sure every character wears a hat” - and this person is *serious*. Out of the *one thousand* sentences in that class, they’ve latched on to *one* and decided that’s the key to writing a great script. This is some strange and misguided type of tunnel vision or selective hearing that leads to some really odd scripts. Pretty scary stuff!

I think how this happens is that the person already has some sort of odd hat fetish, and - like those dogs in Gary Larson cartoons who only hear “Blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah, blah, blah...” - these folks only hear what they want to hear. If it wasn’t about hats, they didn’t hear it. When I find something like this on a website or message board, I wonder what I can do to prevent it the next time I teach a class... but I’m not sure how. I welcome your suggestions.

A friend of mine is a young writer-director who sees everything as if it relates to the struggles of his ethnic minority. He would even look at the “Television Trousers” results of the Google search and come away with how it relates to his ethnic minority. This writer-director has found funding within in his community to make four very political films. All are dramas about the struggles of his people. His first film got a lot of press, played in some film festivals, but never got picked up by a distrib. I saw the film at a local festival, and it was more political than dramatic - lots of speeches. Haven’t see his other three films, but they’ve gotten less press and fewer festivals have shown them. None of them are on DVD - no distrib. Now his community funding sources are starting to dry up, so he decided to make a horror film, because horror films are hot right now.

When my friend told me about this, at first I was surprised. This is a guy who thinks Hollywood makes stupid movies for stupid people. Most of our conversations have been the great debate about selling out versus being true to your beliefs. If you’ve spent much time on my website you know that I advocate being subversive - making genre films with a message. The script I’m currently trying to finish rewriting before I fly to London is a sci-fi action story about an agent with the Federal Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Androids hunting down some renegade androids set on overthrowing the US Government... but it’s really about tolerance. I’ve taken a bunch of situations that deal with prejudice against minorities and turned the illegal immigrants and Gay marriage and sweat shop labor and National Anthem in Spanish and people smuggled over the border in metal containers into... androids. I can deal with all kinds of issues in a script that most people will think is just an action movie.

So I told him I thought it was a great idea. Minorities are under-represented in Hollywood films, and horror films like my friend Darin’s TALES FROM THE HOOD and Snoop’s BONES were good, solid money earners with some cross-over (big fat white guys like me even paid to see them). I gave him a copy of my Horror Class CD and the usual advice to rent a bunch of horror movies and study them - take them apart and find out what makes them tick, and use that information to write his screenplay. I also told him that just because it was a horror movie, doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. You can make a point within a genre film.

Some of you may be shocked that he had four previous films that didn’t get distribution even though they played at festivals. When people hear the phrase “didn’t get distribution”, they think that refers to *theatrical* distribution. I mean, they’ll put anything on DVD, right? You’ve seen some of the crap they put on DVD... maybe even one of my 36 Oscar Worthy Films Starring Tom Cruise. Hard to imagine a film not being good enough for DVD.

At a panel at VSDA (video software dealers association) the distribs said that about 27,000 independent feature films are submitted to them every year (you read that right)... and each distrib only buys a few of them. A company like Asylum makes 12 films a year and buys another 12. Even if there were 100 distribs buying that many films a year, it’s still only 1,200 films - that’s just over a fifth of the movies made every year. And I don’t think there are 100 big distribs out there... I’m not even sure there are as many as 30 distribs of any size. That means distribs can be really picky. And even the artsie distribs on the VSDA panel said it all comes down to what they think the public will buy or rent on DVD. Even artsie distribs have to pay their office rent and power bills.

I think the problem with my friend’s previous 4 films was that they had a target audience (his minority) but weren’t the most entertaining movies that targeted that audience. And that may even explain that crap that does get released on DVD - when you’ve spend 40 hours being abused by “The Man” for lower than average wages and having total strangers hate you for the color of your skin or the person you love or your wheelchair or your religion, do you really want to watch a movie about that? Wouldn’t you rather watch a lesbian vampire movie featuring members of your minority? Or a haunted house movie featuring members of your ethnic minority? Or a monster movie featuring members of your ethnic minority?

So the majority of the 27,000 films submitted to distribs every year get no form of distribution at all, because “The Man” can’t make a buck off them. So my friend is going to make a horror film, because “The Man” can make money on a horror film, and some of that money will trickle down to his investors and his community. Not a bad thing to make some money while showcasing the very talented people in his community.

The next time we have coffee, he’s telling me how his script is going - but all he talks about is the minority angle. It’s almost as if he’s talking out one of his other 4 films. I ask him if he’s had a chance to listen to my class, yet... he says he hasn’t gotten around to it. That’s okay, he’s writing. Always a good thing to be writing.

A few weeks later we bump into each other and I ask about the script. He tells me he’s almost done, and the good news is that his investors are really excited. They are going to give him more money than he had on his other 4 films, because this one is a winner. I ask about the story, and he gives me the capsule version - and it doesn’t sound like a horror story to me at all. In fact, it sounds like a love story! This is strange. I ask him about the horror scenes - and he describes a scene that doesn’t sound scary at all. It sounds *political*. I ask what horror movies he watched before writing the script. He tells me he started to watch NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET but turned it off after ten minutes because he thought it was garbage. He didn’t watch *any* horror movies. I ask if he’s ever seen a horror movie before. “Yeah, when I was a kid.” I ask him about that experience - he tells me he used to love movies like that, then he outgrew them. He’s opened his eyes to the world around him and has seen....

When I ask how he knows if he’s making something that even fits in the horror genre, he tells me it doesn’t matter because he’s writing from his heart and being heartfelt and honest is more important than selling out. Wow, we’re back to that.

I ask if anyone *dies* in his script, and the answer is “Of course!” But then he explains how a character who is prejudiced gets thrown in front of a bus and run over. The more he talks about his script, the more it sounds like the slightly more violent version of his other 4 films. But it doesn’t sound anything like a horror film at all (except for a big violent ending that could go either way).

I advise him that potential distributors are “The Man” and will care more about the commercial aspects than the social aspects of his film - so maybe he should grab some horror DVDs and watch them and maybe do a touch-up rewrite on his script (which probably needs a page one), just to fool distribs into buying his finished film. He says he might do that... but I didn’t think he would.

So, a couple of weeks ago I have coffee with him again - he has finished his script and begun pre-production. I ask him a few story questions - and it seems that the story has even less horror, now. The original ending he told me about, that was kind-of-horror, he changed into more love story. I am so confused by this, I ask him about the over-all story again... and it’s morphed into a social-political themed story where a couple of people get killed in ways that don’t sound scary at all. “But, weren’t you trying to make a horror movie?” “This is better.” “What about distribution?” “You can’t know what they want, so why even think about it? This is my best work so far. And, because it’s a horror movie, they’ll probably buy it.”

I would like to have said: But it isn’t a horror movie! though I didn’t. I wished him good luck. There’s a weird rule with friends - you have to be supportive. If this guy was a stranger on a message board I would have called him a moron and explained that he was continuing the same self-destructive patterns he was trying to break by making this film. But you have to wish a friend good luck and offer to crew for him if he needs you.

He didn’t need me. He had a nice budget.

That’s good, because I can’t imagine being on set for this film every day. It would be like watching someone try to kill themselves again and again. There’s this great scene at the end of Roman Polanski’s horror flick THE TENANT where the lead jumps out of the window of his apartment to stop the other tenants from trying to drive him crazy... he hits the pavement in front of the building... and lives! His landlord (who has bat wings) and his super (who has a lizard tongue) try to help him. They want to keep him alive and play with him some more. But he drags his battered body up the steps to jump again! That’s what working on that film would be like - watching someone keep trying to kill themselves over and over again until they got it right. I don’t have the stomach for that. When I see a *stranger* do something stupid like race across a busy street against the light to catch a bus or something, I worry about them. I want to stop them from their self-destructive behavior. I’m sure I would have spent every day on set hinting that maybe a scene with a guy in a hockey mask with a machete might be interesting at this location.

He’s filming right now. He managed to get a couple of known actors in his film - members of his minority group who are supporting the cause (not Snoop - he’s probably doing a *real* horror film). For all I know, this one may find a distrib... but I’m not holding my breath.

This brings our little trilogy of terror to a close. Hope you don’t have any nightmares. I said at the beginning that this was a fable, but I’m not going to tell you the moral to the story - I’ll let you figure that out on your own. You may come up with a different moral, or see these stories in ways that I could never imagine....

Maybe to you, it’s all about the hats.

- Bill

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 2... I Was An Overpriced Zombie

From 2006...

Originally this was going to be one blog entry, but I decided to break it up into bite-sized pieces. Easier to digest, right? This painting in our gallery of gore starts with a director who made some forgettable low budget action films in the late 80s/early 90s and ended up directing syndicated TV shows. You remember all of those shows in the 90s that played on some non-network channel? Stuff like RISING SUN and COBRA and VIP? Well, they don’t make those shows anymore, so this director is out of work. But, like everyone else, he decided to make a horror movie because horror movies are hot right now. He assembles some private financing and a distribution deal – his budget is around a million bucks. I hint around that I would be willing to write a script for below my quote... and I even have a couple of horror scripts sitting around that could be made on that budget. He wants to develop his own project, and is going to work with a non-WGA writer (who he won’t pay until the film is completed) to save development money. Okay.

I suspect this is really a control issue. One of the strange things I’ve noticed in my career is that the more established you become, the fewer insecure people want to work with you. It’s the opposite of how it should be. If I have a script that went wide and got me 48 studio meetings, some people will refuse to read that script because they can’t easily dismiss it. A strange thing happens when directors or producers think your script may actually be good - it puts pressure on them not to screw it up. They can make a bad script better, but all they can do with a good script is screw it up... so they may be more interested in a flawed script than one that is ready to go. An actor in one of my films has a policy to *only* work with actors worse than he is, so that he always looks better. What makes no sense about this is - you should always be looking for the best elements. A good script, a good cast. If that actor surrounded himself with *better* actors, he wouldn’t look bad... he’d look like the star of a film with bigger names in supporting roles. Makes him look bigger than the other names! And with great supporting actors, the film becomes a better film. And when the supporting cast raises the bar, you’re more likely to step up and do better work... Unless you’re afraid that this will expose you as completely talentless. Then you want to work with people of lesser talent, and you end up with crappy films. That’s one of the reason B movies often suck. Even if they begin with a great script, they *need* to screw it up so that they retain their power.

So this director hires a writer with no credits... basically a typing monkey who will write whatever he says to write. He ends up with a script that he tells me is great (but will not show me) and starts pre-production. But in the small world of Hollywood, an actor friend of mine (not Jim) gets a copy of the script and passes it on to me after reading it. Why? Because this is a horror film completely without horror. It has a lot of action, some big stunts, a car chase, and several explosions... but no horror. It’s not scary. I think this director isn’t confident that he can make a scene scary, but he knows he can wrangle a car chase.

So he makes the film and his distrib releases it on DVD... and the horror fan magazines (like Fangoria) all mention the lack of actual thrills. One of the weird problems with this film is casting - he’s cast a female lead who has done horror films before, but everyone else is mostly unknown. All of my friends who have seen the film wonder where the budget went - not to the cast... but maybe the stunts were expensive. We later find out he paid himself his quote - the top $ he’s ever made - even though this made him the most expensive single element in the film. Money in his pocket, but not on screen.

The film ships okay, but it’s mostly a rental - few people buy it. The horror fans are not fans of this film, and the casting and story make it unappealing to the action fans. Not a flop, but not a hit. And everyone agrees that it stinks. The script is just awful. Obviously, this makes me angry for personal reasons - I could have done a much better job than this typing monkey did... Except I wouldn’t have been a typing monkey. The job was for a typing monkey, not a screenwriter.

And just to screw up any moral to this story... he’s just put together private financing of over a million dollar for another horror movie (even though he can’t find a distrib willing to take it before he’s made it). And this new project, with a different typing monkey (being a masochist - I hinted again that I had some horror scripts laying around and would take less than my quote - again he’s using a new, unsold writer), also seems light on horror and heavy on stunts. I wish I had a million bucks to make a horror movie!

Which brings me to that writer from blog entries past - the guy with the PR firm telling everybody how brilliant he is. Well, he’s managed to burn a bunch of bridges with late scripts that aren’t very good, and he’s finding it difficult to get hired for assignments. No one wants to buy his specs (the same old ones) and all of those stars who are attached in his mind aren’t attached in reality... making the projects not so hot. But, you know, what he’s always wanted to do is direct... and horror films are hot right now.

So he decides to make a horror film about two years ago. His theory is that the horror movies are easy to make, you just need some horror stuff in a script and all of those stupid horror fans will pay to see the movie. I mean, look at some of the crap that’s made money! So he throws together a script... and tells me the story one day. I don’t think it sounds like a horror story at all - even though it deals with zombies. It’s a zombie movie with only *one* zombie. And that zombie is part of government experiments - so it’s controlled. It’s a zombie in a lab. It never attacks anyone. It can't attack anyone. But some guys in the government lab poke it with sticks. Actually, the story sounds dull. I mention that it sounds kind of short on conflict, he dismisses this. He uses his press clippings to find financing. (Yes, the world is not fair.) He uses his agency, WMA, to help him with cast - a good mix of fading stars and up and comers. I’m actually impressed by the names he has *actually* attached. Part of his funding deal involves shooting out of state in New Mexico (tax incentives). He finishes the film and shows it to distribs... and they all turn it down. No horror. Part of the reason why they turn it down is because his asking price is so high - he wants to make a bunch of money from this movie. He wants a *guaranteed* theatrical deal. He wants the deal that matches the PR firm’s image of himself.

No one wants to give him that deal. The film is slow paced and not scary at all. Even with his cast, it’s a tough sell. Who wants to watch a not-scary horror film?

Last time I saw the guy, he told me that his film is great, and he’s going to have his PR firm take a stab at marketing it. This may mean it will be coming soon to a theater near you. Like I said, the world is not fair. You may soon be paying $10 to see a boring zombie flick with a pretty good cast - and that in itself is pretty scary stuff!

Episode number three is about a guy I know who makes political films about being a minority who decided to make a horror film... because horror is a hot genre right now. Some of you may not want to stay tuned, because you already know how this one’s going to come out.

- Bill

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Trilogy Of Terror: Part 1.... The Acting Dead!

From 2006...

Ready for some really scary stuff?

This is a fable, even though the stories are true and the names have been changed to protect... well they aren’t exactly innocent, are they? A fable is when a story has a larger meaning, but I’m going to let you figure out that meaning on your own and take away any lessons you want. Our little fable concerns four people who set out to make horror movies. Horror films are hot these days...

We’ll begin our tour of this gallery of gore with the actor. You don’t know his name, but you know his face. He’s mostly a TV actor, but he’s done a bunch of movies, too. If the movie is about a prosecutor, he plays the defense attorney’s 2nd chair. If the story is about a defense attorney, he plays the #2 prosecutor - the sounding board guy. He also plays corporate VPs and the detective in a buddy cop movie who isn’t one of the buddies and FBI Agents. Oh, and I’ve seen him play a gangster before - but he’s kind of too clean cut for that. Basically, he’s *one* step down from the important characters in the film - a guy who gets two dozen lines in the whole film. That makes him a character actor - but one who is almost always working. Problem is, he’d like to be a star. Wait, that’s not the fable part - it’s not about hubris.

So, several years ago he started making his own movies, starring himself (of course). He’d gather together some other character actor friends and make a serious drama... but the films have no story at all. They are like a collection of really great scenes. You haven’t seen any of these movies, because none have ever found distribution. One actually played out of competition at Sundance one year (probably because of all the names in the cast) but no distrib picked it up. You need more than just some good TV names in your film, the disrib needs to make money from the film... and these films don’t even have a *story*. They are “actor porn”.

For instance, one is about four guys in their 40s who play golf together every Tuesday morning. The film isn’t about the relationship between the four guys (though there was a little of that), most of the film is about each one of the guys in some big dramatic scene. The scenes aren’t thematic - it’s not about 4 guys and their love lives, or 4 guys dealing with growing older, or 4 guys learning to accept (or not) how their lives turned out. That would be some form of story. No, the film was just a collection of great scenes with these 4 guys... and, of course, my character actor acquaintance getting twice as many scenes as everyone else. Only fair - it was his money. One character may have a big blow up with his wife. Another character might have a great big dramatic scene with his boss. And there was a scene where a character has a melt-down at a fast food place. None of the scenes were connected in any way - except these 4 guys played golf together every Tuesday morning.

After I saw the film, I thought it was like one of those books they sell at Sam French, 25 GREAT SCENES FOR ACTORS, shot with the same 4 actors and a couple of scenes where they golf together.

Because I know this guy, I’ve tried to give him a little advice about story... all of which he’s argued with or completely ignored. “It’s all about the truth of the dramatic moment, not some contrived story”. Okay... Every time I do my class in Los Angeles, his name is on the comp list... and he never shows. But after the third film he has funded out of pocket wasn’t picked up by *any* distrib for *any* medium (not DVD, not TV, nothing)... and his wife was about to divorce him, he decided to make a horror film (because they’re hot right now, and he can make some quick cash and save his marriage).

So he asks me for a little advice. I *give him* some Blue Books and the Horror CD and advise him to watch 5 to 10 horror movies and *study them* - figure out how and why they work. Then apply that information to his script. Kind of my basic advice.

So he makes his film... Whenever I bump into him, I ask him about it... and he tells me it’s great. The best horror film ever made. That’s good, because his wife files for divorce. He also missed pilot season for the first time ever. In other words - everything is now riding on this horror film. Now *that’s* a dramatic situation!

There’s this strange and illogical phenomena where the more important something is to a person, the more important it should be to everyone else in the world. If it is important for you to sell your next script, your next script is the best work you’ve ever done. It has to be, because if it’s just your average script, you’re screwed. This makes no sense at all - the script is the script and it doesn’t get better or worse depending on how much you need a sale. But this is often the way we think. So the more that was riding on my friend’s film, the better that film became. Had to be great, or he was screwed. In reality, it’s just creating and believing your own BS. Jim’s a good actor - and he convinced himself that he made a great film.

He rents a screening room on Sunset, to show the film to distribs. And he’s managed to get all of the major players to show up. He rounds up some folks to fill all of the empty seats in the screening room - a “warm body” audience to laugh and scream. Because I’m not an actor the distribs might recognize, I get to fill a seat. See - I’m good for something! This will be the first time I’ve seen one of his films on the big screen... and without the words “For Screening Purposes Only” not fading in and out at the bottom of the screen. I take my seat, he does a little speech to the distribs, the light dim, and...

We get off to an okay start - a maniac escapes from a mental institution, grabs an ax, steals a car. He doesn’t kill anyone, yet, but it’s early. Then we get some hot teen actors going on vacation at a cabin in the woods... then Jim playing the Town Sheriff (he’s still trying to ride this film to stardom) who warns the kids about the escaped maniac. Then we get about 20 minutes of completely unrelated big dramatic scenes with the kids (plus two, count ‘em, two, with the overly educated Town Sheriff chewing scenery like crazy.) (Dude, you won the audition, take it easy!) None of these scenes are about the maniac. A handful of the distribs sneak out during these 20 minutes.

About 30 minutes in, one of the teens is *discovered* dead on the back deck of the cabin. Killed by an ax. There’s blood and a lot of it... but we didn’t see the character killed or chased or anything. The guy’s just dead. Some FX guy has done great job of creating gore - but it just sits there.

This leads to maybe another 20 minutes where the teens have big dramatic discussions... but they seem more interested in chewing scenery than being afraid of some maniac with an ax (or that one of their friends is chopped up on the back deck). All but one of the distribs sneaks out during these 20 minutes. To tell you the truth, I want to sneak out, too. And I almost do. But what am I going to tell Jim the next time I bump into him? So I stick it out.

Another kid is found murdered with an ax. We never see the kid killed, we just see him dead. No stalk, no slash... just a body. This, of course, leads to about 20 minutes of big dramatic scenes about the nature of life and responsibility and all kinds of other things that start a little laughter in the screening room.

It’s difficult not to laugh when people are wasting time with these big dramatic scenes while some maniac with an ax is killing them one by one offscreen. Why don’t they *do something*? Why don’t they shut up and try to stop the maniac? Or at least run for their lives? The last distrib sneaks out sometime during these scenes. Now the screening room is nothing but shills. The screening room is being rented by the hour, and maybe Jim can get a partial refund if he stops the movie right now... but he keeps the projectors running. Like some maniac with a movie, he traps us in that screening room and forces us to watch the whole film.

“Stop me before I screen again!”

And it doesn’t get better. Another teen is found dead, which leads to another 20 minutes of big dramatic scenes. Not only are the dramatic scenes kind of funny given the situation, they also make the film boring. It’s all talking heads. And because the big dramatic scenes often have little or nothing to do with maniacs and axes, it’s almost as if the scenes are at war with the story... and the scenes are winning. There is no stalk, no slash in the entire stalk & slash movie. No suspense. No dread. No violence. The closest we get to anything even resembling a horror film is the dead people who are discovered *after* the action. The best gore money can buy.

Of course, the film ends with a 30 second battle between the leading lady and the maniac with the ax - no chase, no struggle, she just kills the sucker - the end.

Afterwards Jim says there’s a celebration at the Standard Hotel (rooftop) bar - he’s buying the drinks. If he’s buying drinks, I’m going next door. I want to be paid for my time. He compares the film to *Oscar Winner* SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and I mention that SILENCE wasn’t just Hopkins and Foster having endless conversations. “Yes! My film is better than that because I minimized all of the chase bullshit and focused on the drama.” My only response was to agree with that.

Jim thinks the distribs will begin calling in the next few days. They don’t. A couple of months ago, he calls me to ask if he can sleep on my sofa for a while. SAG has screwed up on some residual checks and he’s broke. All of his money was tied up in the movie... and his divorce pretty much wiped him out. I really want to tell him that he should have just listened to me and made a real horror movie, instead of some actor’s showcase. But instead I tell him this isn’t a good time for me, and suggest another mutual acquaintance who would hate me, now... except SAG got Jim his residual check before he was evicted, and he just landed a recurring role on a new TV show. For a couple of weeks I was sure he would end up sleeping on my sofa. I’m too nice to say no to people who are really in trouble... but part of me wants to start a serious discussion about personal responsibility that will drag on for 20 minutes until someone finds me hacked to death on the patio.

The next segment of our Trilogy Of Terror deals with a director I know who decided to make a horror movie... because horror is a hot genre right now. And that screenwriter who hired the PR firm, who decided to write and direct a horror film... because horror is a hot genre right now. Stay tuned... the really scary stuff is yet to come!

- Bill

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trailer Tuesday: Panic In The Streets (1950)

Ebola!

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Richard Murphy (BOOMERANG, COMPULSION), Daniel Fuchs (CRISS CROSS), based on a story by Edward & Edna Anhalt (SATAN BUG).
Starring: Richard Widmark, Barbara Bel Geddes, Paul Douglas, and the great Jack Palance and great Zero Mostel.


After seeing DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES sunday night, with it's opening montage showing us news footage of the plague that wipes out almost all human life on Earth, I thought it would be fun to look at a film from the past with a different look at the plague. 1950's PANIC IN THE STREETS stars Richard Widmark as a CDC doctor... not a crazed killer or a snarky hit man! He's the good guy in this one. The film takes place in New Orleans, and was shot on location (unusual for this time period) but was directed by Elia Kazan, the dude who took advantage of the new method style of acting and married it to a documentary style of cinema with great results. Kazan's *next* film was A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and a few films after that he directed ON THE WATERFRONT, and then EAST OF EDEN. Though most of his films dealt with a social issue, he was working in a time where the easiest way to do that was in crime films like this one.

Our story starts when a guy is murdered... but he would have died anyway because he had the plague. The plague! Now it's a race-against-time search for the killer (Jack Palance)... who also has the plague and is *spreading it* with every person he touches. Doctor Widmark and Detective Paul Douglas have 48 hours to find Palance before creates a city-wide epidemic. This is a great idea because "patient zero" is someone who does not want to be found (because he's a killer).


There are chase scenes and shoot outs and fight scenes and a plane chasing a plague ship and... well, it's danged exciting. It's a thriller. But it also really gets into police vs. doctors vs. city politics vs. freedom of the press vs. the public good. Because this crisis - the killer roaming the streets with the plague - requires all kinds of difficult decisions - and as they argue in a speeding car whether they should kill this guy (because he's a menace to society) or make sure they don't kill him (because they need to know everyone he came into contact with) we get to examine the way society works - and why our version may not work.

We get to look at what's right, what's wrong, what works and what doesn't work. Should they give the press the story to possibly save lives... even though that will force the killer underground and they won't capture him in time? Is freedom of the press more important than capturing a criminal? The film really digs into issues.

It also digs into character - Widmark is a low paid government doctor who hides in his work, causing problems with his wife Barbara Bel Geddes and their kid. There are some great family issues going on during the crisis, including Widmark's decision *not* to get his family out of town as they get closer and closer to the crisis point. (Some of the detectives gets their families out of the danger zone). The film works as a pursuit film, a gangster film, a cop film, a social issues film, and a drama... and *won* Best Screenplay that year. It manages to get everything right.


Plus there are a great pair of scenes between Widmark and Douglas, where Douglas completely takes responsibility for something Widmark did - to the point of endangering his future. Because it's what Widmark wanted, he doesn't notice the sacrifice. Later, when he realizes what Douglas has done, he kicks himself a bit... then later makes everything right by taking responsibility for something Douglas has done - that could really screw up Widmark's future.

The locations are amazing: coffee packing houses, ships, rooming houses, waterfront warehouses, and suburban homes. In a time where movies were shot in the back lot, this film explores New Orleans while avoiding anyplace you've ever seen in a tourist video. We get the places people live and work and avoid the tourist traps. It's a great, gritty look at the city. And there is an attention to detail that makes even the action set pieces very personal.

This is a really well written thriller, and when Widmark explains to the cops how Palance could hop a plane and spread the plague nation-wide within a day, it's really frightening. That's what could happen in the late-40s... imagine what could happen today?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES!

Bill

Monday, October 13, 2014

Lancelot Link: Gone Girl Edition

Lancelot Link Monday! A bunch of new movies opened over the 3 Day Weekend, but GONE GIRL remained on the top of the box office. Though the film has become controversial, mostly it's a twisty roller coaster ride. They have crowned Fincher the new Hitchcock, which just goes to show you how little people know about Hitchcock. Is anyone who does a movie with plot twists the "New Hitchcock"? I thought GONE GIRL's twists were more like BODY HEAT, so maybe he should be the "New Kasdan"? 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 Gone Girl....................... $26,800,000
2 Dracula Told.................... $23,457,000
3 Alex Terrible................... $19,100,000
4 Annabelle....................... $16,365,000
5 Judge........................... $13,330,000
6 Equalizer........................ $9,725,000
7 Addicted......................... $7,600,000
8 Maze Runner...................... $7,500,000
9 Box Trolls....................... $6,676,000
10 Left Behind...................... $2,909,000


This is the first weekend that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was not in the Top 10. It was #12.

2) SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION Anniversary... How The Novelette Became A Film.

3) GONE GIRL and PSYCHO... do I need to add a page to my Hitchcock Book?

4) TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: Brilliant Script Analysis.

2) Favorite Books Of Your Favorite People.

2) Power Show Runners.

7) Ex Studio Heads Create New Companies... New Places To Sell Screenplays?

8) Insane Idea Prompts.

9) Complete Episode Guide and Analysis of WEST WING (all seasons)

10) Sacramento's Joe Carnahan's Unproduced Screenplays... There's A Stack Of Them.

11) Test Screenings: Help & Hurt.

12) TOMORROWLAND Trailer.

And the Car Chase Of The Week!



GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS and it opens with a girl, best I could do...

Bill

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Notorious (1946)

Screenplay by Ben Hecht.

This is my favorite Hitchcock movie. The one that gets me every time I see it. Hey, REAR WINDOW is great and NORTH BY NORTHWEST is fun... but this is the one that hurts me to watch - because it makes me feel painful things. Here’s the thing about Hitchcock - he was a master of cinematic language. But just like a novelist who is a master of language, you still need to use that language in the service of a story. I believe that even the worst of Hitchcock’s movies (and we are passed most of those) contain some great scenes and interesting visual or narrative experiments. They movies may not work, but *parts* of them are amazing. And that’s the problem with all movies - a film is a combination of dozens of different arts (or 7 if you’re a fan of old Warner Bros releases) and getting all of those aspects to work at the same time, and then work together, requires a miracle. Usually some things work and some things don’t work. For me, NOTORIOUS is the Hitchcock movie that gets almost everything right at the same time, and all of that begins with the screenplay by Ben Hecht.

A film has all of those arts (or 7) that must come together, and a screenplay also has many different elements that must each work, and then work together. Your characters, your dialogue, your actions, your pacing... there are maybe a hundred different elements, and the odds of them all working on the same scripts are millions to one - which is why there are very few movies that you wouldn’t want to change a word. As screenwriters, we try to get as many elements right as we can.



Hecht was a legendary screenwriter - he wrote *fast* and also wrote great stuff. He worked on other Hitchcock screenplays, but this is the one where everything fell together perfectly... and then Hitchcock’s master of cinematic language brought that screenplay alive. Every time I watch this film (and I know the dialogue by heart) it almost brings me to tears. I get swept up in the story and forget that these are actors speaking lines - they are real people to me with some very real and messy emotional problems. All of Hitchcock’s techniques make this film *more* emotional and *more* personal. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman - movie stars - manage to play roles that make you forget they are movie stars. Both are so tragic, so sad, so unglamorous...

Nutshell: During World War 2, unemotional CIA Agent Devlin (Cary Grant) drafts party girl Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to go to Rio De Janerio where Nazis are up to something. Alicia is the daughter of a traitor, and a childhood friend, Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines), is one of the Nazis in Brazil. Devlin and Alicia are two people with permanent broken hearts... but while waiting for their mission in Rio they fall in love. The mission? Alicia is supposed to screw Sebastian and find out what the Nazis are up to. So Devlin has to order the woman he loves to screw some other man! And then stick around - practically watching them screw - to get information from Alicia. Folks, this film was made in the 1940s and is shocking even today. What amazes me is how they got this thing past the censors, because the plot is: she screws a Nazi. She’s a whore for Uncle Sam. Sure, they use some euphemisms, but they make it clear that she is screwing the guy. And she discovers that they are working on an atomic bomb (which had not been invented when this film was made - which got Hitchcock in some trouble) and that’s when things go really really wrong. (Grant is actually an OSS Agent - the predecessor of the CIA - but I’m de-complicating it for this blog entry... which is not a history of USA espionage agencies.)

Experiment: Not much in the way of *story* experiments in this film, though Hitchcock did some ground-breaking shots - an amazing shot from high overhead a crowded party slowly cranes down to a close up of a key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. All in focus, by the way. I don’t know how many recent films I’ve seen where the camera moves just a little and is out of focus. Here we get a complicated moving crane shot and it’s perfect. This shot, by the way, is a great illustration of Hitchcock’s Biggest To Smallest Theory - which we will talk about when we get to YOUNG AND INNOCENT. The film is filled with beautiful moving camera shots on difficult terrain like stairways (it was a crane shot mimicking a dolly) and none of it is showy - all of the camera movement is used to enhance the emotional experience of the story.



There's also a great subjective shot from Ingrid Bergman's character, who is in bed with a hangover, as Cary Grant enters the room and stands over her... ending up upside down from her point of view. It's a great shot because it's boozy like Bergman's character and is *exactly* what you would see if you were her.


Hitch Appearance: A guest at the big party at Sebastian’s house, gulping champagne.

Great Scenes: This is another one of those films that is all great scenes, so we are going to look at some of the elements that makes those scenes great.

Opening Scenes: NOTORIOUS opens with a title card with date and time, setting this story is reality. Inside a criminal court building, reporters wait outside and one opens the doors to the courtroom so that we can evesdrop on the end of the trial... Just in time for the defendant, Huberman, to rant about how the worst is yet to come... and then be found guilty for *treason* as an agent of the Nazis. Like in REAR WINDOW, the audience becomes voyeurs. Seeing this through a cracked open courtroom door makes it seem more real. Then Alicia Huberman exits the courtroom, running the gauntlet between reporters, and we get some of the smoothest exposition I’ve ever seen on film. Conflict is the key, here - as the reporters hammer her with questions, we get information about who she is. Alicia gives no information.



Next scene is Alicia at home having a party, drunk off her ass. Everyone is drinking and dancing except one man, back to us, who sits quietly on a chair watching. Alicia tries flirting with him, gets nowhere... but that only makes her want him more. She kicks out everyone but the stranger, and it’s only after they are alone together do we get to see his face - Devlin (Cary Grant). This back-towards-us introduction was also used in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK with Indiana Jones. It’s a great way to introduce a character using mystery - hey, who is that guy who is at the party and just sitting there? Why aren’t they showing us his face?

Then Alicia wants to go on a picnic (in the middle of the night) and insists on driving (hammered to the point where she can barely walk) and Devlin goes with her. Sitting in the passenger seat, hand ready to grab the wheel, he watches as she swerves all over the road. Hitchcock uses the same POV concept he’ll use in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, putting the audience behind the wheel. It’s a great, tense, scene - because Devlin needs to allow her to drive like a maniac in order to win her trust. Hey, he might die in the process! His love for his continued existence vs. his duty to the CIA to win her trust.



Scene DNA: Back in the March 2000 issue of Script Magazine I had an article called Making A Scene that contained this theory of mine about your screenplay’s DNA. Every scene in your screenplay should also be a microcosm of the story and should contain the DNA necessary to clone the script. You should be able to read any scene from your script and have some idea of what the whole script is about. This usually comes down to your script’s central conflict and theme - those two elements should be present in every single scene of your screenplay. The Central Conflict is where your *emotional conflict* and your *physical conflict* (the plot) intersect. You can usually find the theme through the central conflict, or find the central conflict through the theme. In NOTORIOUS the central conflict is Love vs. Duty - and that can be found in almost every scene in the film. This is part of what I call Organic Screenwriting - Each scene has to be integral to the story not just filler material. Each scene should expose character, move the story forward, and deal with the central conflict and theme of the screenplay... the script's DNA.

Our very first scene has Alicia at her father’s treason trial - she loves her father but did not testify on his behalf. This is a question from one of the reporters - and is not answered for over 15 minutes, in a scene where Devlin plays a recording of Alicia arguing with her father about being a Nazi spy. Every scene in between has been about Alicia and her father - her love for him vs. her duty as a patriotic American to be against the Nazis. How can you hate the enemy when your father is one of them? After hearing the recording she tells Devlin that she did not turn him in, and he says that they did not expect her to - she’s his daughter. A line of dialogue full of that Love vs. Duty central conflict! If you only had that one line of dialogue, you could “clone” the movie.



Most of the characters in NOTORIOUS end up in pairs, with the Love vs. Duty conflict between them. There’s Alicia and her father. Alicia and Devlin. Alicia and Sebastian. Sebastian and his mother. Each pair (and several others in the film) deal with the Love vs. Duty central conflict in scene after scene. The *plot scenes* are all about this central conflict - and we will look at some examples in a moment.

The *emotional scenes* are all about the Love vs. Duty question *within* every character. These are characters at war with themselves - they have an internal Love vs. Duty dilemma which is externalized through the situations in the story. In NOTORIOUS all of the characters are at war with themselves over "love" and "duty". Devlin is a man who says he is afraid of women - a lonely man who is all about his job (CIA Agent - actually OSS, but this isn't an espionage history lesson). When we meet him, he is defined by his loneliness - he is alone at a party, interacting with no one. For a while, the focus is on creating situations that point out that he is lonely - and one interesting way to do that is to put him in a bunch of scenes with Alicia who is a hot, seductive woman... and he is constantly pushing her away. She throws herself at him, he rejects her. Though at this point you may not think that is Love vs. Duty - it actually is the *fear of love* vs. duty - the scenes are all about potential romance that Devlin is rejecting because he needs to focus on his work... only we see Devlin looking at her. He desires this woman. The situation in the story puts them *together*, and we know when the leading man and leading woman are together in scene after scene, romance is somewhere on the horizon. Devlin *wants her* but pushes her away.



In order to show him *rejecting* his love for her, we must find a way to show the love exists. Show that Devlin desires her. There’s a great bit on the plane to Rio De Janeiro where they look out the plane window on Alicia’s side at Rio, then Alicia bends over Devlin to look out the window on the other side of the plane - and her face and lips are maybe an inch from his. It’s a “kiss moment” but he does not kiss her. But the *situation* shows us that he wants to kiss her... but is afraid. This is supposed to be a professional relationship, not a personal one. Duty, not love.

There is absolutely no backstory that says Devlin has had his heart seriously broken - but his actions show this, so we understand it. It's all about what characters do, not what they say... and we’ll talk about the subtext in NOTORIOUS in a minute. We also learn about Alicia through her actions - just as Devlin pushes love away, Alicia is jumping into the arms of anyone who will give her love. She's a slut (tramp is the word they use in the film). Now, what does this tell us about Alicia? Hey - we have two people who *need* love, and each is going about it in the wrong way. So, let's create a situation by putting them together! A situation where they are supposed to be working together, *not* falling in love. That situation brings the whole love vs. duty central conflict to the surface.

About 5:45 minutes into the movie, Alicia says there’s nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.

About 20:00 minutes into the movie, Devlin says he’s always been afraid of women.

Once they get to romantic Rio, their actions at odds with each other - Alicia throwing herself at Devlin and Devlin deflecting her. But here's the depth part - not deflecting her because he isn't interested, deflecting her because he *is* interested. He is at war with himself. We have established that he is lonely, we have established that he is afraid of love - those two things would remain internal if not for Alicia. The key to screenwriting is to take what is internal and make it external - which is how it is completely different than novels. We have only two senses in screenplays - sight and sound. We have to find ways to show Devlin’s emotional conflict through *situations* and *actions*... and sometimes the absence of expected actions. We also have the location working for us - this is romantic Rio, the perfect place to fall in love, and they are together almost 24/7. So Alicia is everything he wants *and* everything he fears. The situations - the scenes - are designed to force Devlin to deal with this again and again. His *duty* is to be with her in Rio while they wait for their assignment, but that means he must be constantly fighting his love for her.

But he loses that fight. In a scene similar to the plane “non-kiss”, Devlin and Alicia are sight seeing while waiting for their assignment, and she looks at the view - placing her face an inch from his. This time, he kisses her... and she kisses him back... and they become a couple. The most dysfunctional romantic pair ever put on film.

Devlin and Alicia are two wounded people who fall in love. Devlin lets down his armor and falls in love with her. That means our story must do something to poke a stick at the fear inside him... the fear that she will break his heart. So we get a great dilemma - Love vs. Duty, our central conflict - the CIA tells Devlin what Alicia's job will be... she has to sleep with a Nazi (Alex Sebastian) and find out what he is up to. Now we get two scenes back-to-back: Devlin tells the CIA guys she won't do it, she's not that kind of woman, she's reformed. They laugh this off - she's a slut. Next scene - Devlin has to tell Alicia what the mission is. And, because he's afraid that she doesn't really love him (heartbreak fear) he sets it up to be *her* decision. That way, in that game playing method of rocky relationships, by refusing the job she will be professing her love for him. But it takes two to play games, and she decides to say "yes" and see if he tells her she shouldn't do it. Guess what? This screws up everything, and each thinks the other doesn't truly love them, and now she's gonna go screw some Nazi and report back to Devlin about it. Can you imagine a worse situation for either of them? A more painful situation for Devlin? And the big problem is - his job, his *duty*, is to have the woman he loves screw some other guy. That's the concept of the film - the basic situation of the story. It's the logline. And that love vs. duty aspect is in almost every scene of the film. Since the *story* is about a man who must order the woman he loves to sleep with some other guy, that central conflict is part of all of the plot scenes *and* part of all of the emotional scenes. The big emotional conflict is having characters do the thing they would never do... the thing that hurts them most.

For Devlin to be a good CIA Agent, he must make sure Alicia screws that Nazi like crazy! But, for Devlin to be a happy person, she can not screw the Nazi. He is at war with himself - love vs duty. Every scene becomes *emotional* and every scene has his character in conflict with himself.

And, because this is a movie - about things that happen rather than about thoughts and feelings - Alicia SCREWS THE NAZI. AND KEEPS SCREWING HIM! AND TO NOT BE SUSPICIOUS, MUST PRACTICALLY SCREW HIM IN FRONT OF DEVLIN. Scene after scene, situation after situation, she must seem to select Alex Sebastian over Devlin - and Devlin must WATCH this and even participate in it. These situations are created so that Devlin, who loves Alicia, must practically push her into another man's arms (and bed) because it is his *duty*.



There is a great scene where Alicia *reports* to Devlin that she has added Sebastian to her list of “playmates”. That’s one of those scenes where you wonder how the censors let that slip past. You don’t need a decoder ring to figure out what she means - she screwed him. They aren’t married, there is no talk of marriage at this point... but she screwed him. And Devlin, trying to act businesslike, tells her “good job”. But you know that isn’t what he’s thinking... or feeling.

Later, after Alicia and Sebastian have been screwing for a while, she goes to see the CIA boss and Devlin for advice - Sebastian has asked to marry her. Hey, one thing to push the woman you love into the bed of another man... a bigger thing to says she should *marry* him. That takes her off the market. That’s permanent. But that’s what the situation forces Devlin to do. It’s a great scene, because Devlin ends up trying to find some *business* (duty) reasons why they should not get married... but ends up finding the solution to every objection he comes up with. He’s the one who realizes their marriage may be bad for his heart, but it’s good for the mission.



Because the marriage creates an excuse to throw a big party... where Devlin and Alicia can search the wine cellar and find out what the Nazis are up to. At that big party there are numerous scenes and bits where Devlin and Alicia desperately want to be together... but he must hand her over to Sebastian. There are 3 or 4 scenes in that sequence where this happens - the big one where Alicia and Devlin have gone to the wine cellar together, discovered that the Nazis are working with uranium, and are almost discovered spying (duty) by Sebastian, but they pretend to be kissing (love) so that he wioll not suspect. Only problem - they both really want to kiss each other and do not want to stop.

And every time Devlin must push her into the arms of Sebastian, we feel awful for him. How can a man do that? How can he live with that? How can he stand there and watch the woman he loves with someone else? How can he be the one who forced her to be with that other person - and in scene after scene keep forcing her to be with him. But that is his *job*, his *duty*. Scene after scene deals with this central conflict - you could pick any random scene and find that central conflict and use it to clone the rest of the script. Once you have that central conflict, that war within the character that is also the plot, you have to create scenes that externalize it into a series of battles.

BIGGEST TO SMALLEST - ALL ONE SHOT:


And all of the other characters are different aspects of that Love vs. Duty conflict *illustrated*. We’ve looked at Devlin and Alicia's *love vs. duty* aspects, let's look at the other characters: The Nazi, Alex Sebastian (Claude Raines), is a great character - a sad little man in love with a hottie. To give us the love vs. duty thing - he discovers that Alicia (woman he loves) is really a CIA agent - what does he do? He goes to his smothering mother (Madame Konstantin) for advice, “Mother, I have married an America agent” - love and duty in the same sentence *again*! When Sebastian tells her that Alicia is a spy, she has to pit her love for her son (which is kinda creepy) against her duty as an evil Nazi - if she exposes Alicia as a spy to the other Nazis, she may get rid of the woman who is coming between her and her son... but also putting her son in danger - the other Nazis will probably kill him.

So they decide to slowly poison her, and tell the other Nazis that she is ill. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot, in case you haven’t seen the movie. I don’t want to spoil all of it. But when you watch the film, look at scenes like the one with Poor Emil, who freaks out in front of Alicia when he thinks the wine they are serving with dinner might be Uranium. All of the Nazis love Emil, he’s a very sweet guy, but they decide he’s let his emotions get in the way of business by freaking out like that, and the only way to resolve it is to kill him. This is a great scene because it does so many different things at once - it is “love and duty” and shows just how evil the Nazis are (they are killing their friend) and telling us the wine bottle is the MacGuffin and - what we don’t know at the time - completely setting up the end of the movie!

You can take any scene in NOTORIOUS and find a Love vs. Duty decision in the center of it - the DNA of the story - and use that DNA to clone the rest of the story. Each scene, each line, each character is a *part* of the whole. Nothing tacked on from the outside. Nothing that does not belong.

Subtext: The great thing about these Love vs. Duty situations is that they are overflowing with subtext. NOTORIOUS is one of those films where every line of dialogue has multiple meanings - usually the “duty” line that has a “love” second meaning. This allows the dialogue to be subtle - the situations are so emotionally charged there’s no need for big dramatic dialogue.



One of the scenes I use whenever I teach my 2 day class is the one where they finally take a chance on love, and Alicia plans on cooking him dinner (even though in a previous scene she said she hates to cook - so this is a big thing for her) and she talks about marriage... hinting that she would not be opposed to a long term relationship with Devlin (again, this is a party girl who is used to one night stands and no permanent romantic attachments)... except the conversation is all about preparing chicken. When she talks about the domestic act of making dinner, she’s really talking about *their* domestic future. Oh, and I guess I should mention that this conversation takes place during what was the record for the longest kiss in screen history! Couldn’t be a single sustained kiss, the censors would not allow that, so it is a liplock and a line of dialogue and a liplock and a line of dialogue with the two of them tangled in each other’s arms the whole time. Sexy as hell!



Focus Objects: I have a Script Tip on suspense “focus objects” that uses NOTORIOUS as an example. A “focus object” is an item that creates suspense - like the unraveling rope bridge support in adventure films. The wine bottles are great focus objects in the film, first in the scene where Emil freaks at the bottle being served with dinner - you wonder what’s in it? When they pour it and it is only wine, the question becomes - the why did Emil freak? When Devlin and Alicia search the wine cellar - they are looking for a similar bottle... and find a bunch of them. Devlin accidentally breaks one, exposing Uranium ore. Now he must clean it up against the clock - with Sebastian climbing down the stairs! They find a similar bottle, empty the wine and fill it with the ore, and replace it on the shelf. When Sebastian searches the wine cellar later, looking for something out of place, he looks from vintage year label to vintage year label on the shelf of “uranium bottles” - and one year is not like the others... the one Devlin replaced. The bottle out of place is what creates the suspense in the scene.



And the wine cellar key is the focus of the big party scene and the scenes before and after. Alicia, as Mrs. Sebastian, has access to the keys to every room... except the wine cellar. Since Emil freaked at a wine bottle, Devlin is sure that is the key to whatever those pesky Nazis are up to... and orders Alicia to steal the key. There is a great scene where she steals the key from Sebastian’s key ring while he is dressing for the party only a few feet away. She gets the key - it is in her hand - when Sebastian approaches her, grabs both of her hands! He tells her how much he loves her (as she is stealing the key as part of her spy duties) and lifts one of her hands, opens it... (the empty one, close call) and kisses her palm. Then goes to kiss the other hand... but Alicia pulls him into her arms so that he’ll forget about the hand with the key in it. Distracts him with some lovin’ so he won’t find the stolen key. That’s *before* the party, where the key is the focus as Alicia palms it off to Devlin and eventually Sebastian realizes the key is missing from his ring when he and the butler go down to get some more champagne. That key is the center of about 15 minutes of the film!



There’s also a great “twitch” in the story - an object that has a symbolic and emotional meaning. When Alicia wants to go on that midnight picnic at the beginning of the film she is wearing and outfit with a bear midriff, and Devlin jokes that she might catch cold and ties his handkerchief around her waist. That handkerchief becomes a symbol of their relationship, and there’s a heart breaking scene where she returns it to him... because she’s now screwing that Nazi morning, noon and night. Whenever you can take an object and give it an additional meaning, you can tell your story without words.



Ticking Clock Also whenever I do the two day class I sometimes use the champagne at the party as an example of unusual ticking clocks. Those big red LEDs on the sides of bombs are a complete cliche, and not every film is about a bomb. But there are a million other things that can be used as a “ticking clock” to create suspense. In NOTORIOUS at that big party there is a huge ice bucket full of champagne bottles - and everyone at the party is drinking champagne. Devlin and Alicia will be breaking into the wine cellar, where the rest of the champagne is, to search for the freakout wine. If the champagne in the bucket runs low, Sebastian will need to go down to the wine cellar to get more... except he can’t because Alicia has stolen his key. So, every time they pull another bottle of champagne from that bucket, it’s like minutes ticking away on the clock. This is a great device - and when Alicia or Devlin is offered a glass of champagne and they turn it down, it’s strange and suspect. Hey, it’s a party!



Sound Track: Big, lush, romantic music from Roy Webb, who scored CAT PEOPLE and LEOPARD MAN and MURDER MY SWEET and many other noir films. If the NOTORIOUS score sounds familiar to you, it’s because it gets nicked all the time for parody films with big soapy romantic scenes.

NOTORIOUS is one of those films that doesn’t seem to age - sure it’s in black and white (cinematography by the great Ted Tetzlaff) and is about Nazis and World War 2, but the raw emotions that run through every scene and the sophisticated story about a woman who screws for her country (still amazing that they let them make the film!) seem more modern than half of the films made today. Romance, suspense, drama... all in one great film!

NEXT FRIDAY: THE PARADINE CASE... the movie Hitchcock quit!

- Bill

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