Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Trailer Tuesday: PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE

Directed by: Brian DePalma.
Written by: Brian DePalma, music & lyrics by Paul Williams.
Starring: William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, Paul Williams.


He sold his soul for rock and roll...

About two years ago Edgar Wright hosted the 40th anniversary of Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE to a sold out crown in the massive Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Most of the surviving cast was there, but star William Finley had recently passed away; so this was also a bit of a memorial for him as well. Since PHANTOM is one of my favorite movies, one that I saw in its brief initial run back in 1974, and several times since then... I was in that packed cinema. Wait, you’ve never heard of the film? That’s great! You have something to look forward to!

Buy the border Brian DePalma is one of my favorite directors, and most people know him from BLOW OUT or maybe CARRIE... but those films were made in the middle of his career. He began making odd arthouse films and comedies... and kind of discovered Robert DeNiro (as well as many other actors who would later become famous). His first successful film was an anti (Viet Nam) war comedy starring Robert DeNiro, Gerrit Graham, and Jon Warden called GREETINGS (1968) about three friends who get their draft notices at the same time and each figures out a way to avoid being sent to Viet Nam where they will likely return in a body bag. It’s kind of a series of skits with these three characters that lampoons the time period and the social turmoil in the United States surrounding the war. Jon Warden was the star, with DeNiro and Graham as his sidekicks, and by the end of the film DeNiro is the only one who gets sent to Viet Nam... to return in the sequel HI MOM! (Introducing Charles Durning) which looks at the early 70s, and everything from Organic Food to the Black Power Movement (“Be Black Baby!”).

After a string of successful comedies, they gave DePalma a comedy studio film starring Orson Welles and The Smothers Brothers... which flopped. DePalma went back to indie films and played around with Hitchcock and horror (he had previously done a comedy with Hitchcock overtones called MURDER ALA MOD, starring William Finley... who was a member of his stock company of actors).



His brilliant Hitchcockian horror flick SISTERS was a big hit (I have the Critereon edition) and his next film was going to be called PHANTOM OF THE FILMORE, starring Finley in a mash up of every classic horror movie ever made, plus a satire of the music industry. After writing the script, he approached Paul Williams to write the music figuring he’d start at the top (Williams had written a string of hits at this point) but to his surprise this was *exactly* what Williams was looking for, When you’ve written a string of hit pop songs, you want to try the exact opposite. A rock opera that makes fun of the music biz? Sign him up! Williams also ended up playing the villain, Swan, who has made a little deal with the Devil to look forever young and be incredibly successful. Somewhere along the way, promoter Bill Graham had a lawyer inform them that they couldn’t use the name of his Filmore club, and the film became PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

This film came *before* ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW and just about everyone believes it’s better... but it flopped, as did ROCKY HORROR. The difference? ROCKY HORROR’s distrib played it at midnight shows where it became the phenomenon that it is today. PHANTOM was distributed by 20th Century Fox and they didn’t even know what a midnight show was! So everybody was doing the Time Warp Again and nobody remembered PHANTOM. Well, that’s not exactly true. Those who had seen it the first time it came out kept it alive in revival houses where the introduced their friends to the film. I know I dragged friends to it whenever it played in Berkeley. I had the soundtrack on vinyl and played it frequently, and can sing along with every song if required. I also probably know every line of dialogue. Too bad they didn’t do midnight shows back in the day because then *everybody* would know about this film rather than ROCKY HORROR (though we wouldn’t know about Tim Curry, so maybe it’s good things turned out as they did). But what about the story?

Well the story is about a very talented artist who gets ripped off by The Man... something that screenwriters can identify with.

Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a struggling composer working on a rock opera version of Faust who manages to get a gig playing music between shows (when people are leaving the venue, glorified Muzak) for the multi platinum 50's nostalgia band The Juicy Fruits. Mysterious music producer Swan (Paul Williams) who represents the Fruits is about to open a new rock venue and is looking for a new sound... and when he hears Winslow’s music he thinks this may be it. He orders his tubby underling Philbin (the amazing George Memoli, who is also in Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS, ROCKY, Paul Schrader’s BLUE COLLAR and a bunch of other great 70s stuff) to grab the music and ditch Winslow. Buy the border After “submitting his music to Swan” through Philbin and not hearing back, he tries Swan’s office building, where he’s on a “beat up on sight” list, and after recovering tries Swan’s mansion where he discovers a long line of female singers practicing one of his songs. The best of the bunch is the beautiful and talented Phoenix (introducing Jessica Harper) and Winslow learns from her that Swan has stolen his music, claimed it as his own, and is auditioning females singers for the opening of the Paradise Club. Winslow tries to see Swan (by dressing up as a female singer) and gets beaten up and dumped on the street, where a pair of cops plant some heroin in his purse and arrest him.

In Sing Sing Prison (everything in this film is musical) Winslow is volunteered against his will for a medical experiment funded by Swan’s company where they extract every tooth in your mouth and replace it with stainless steel.

Winslow escapes prison, discovers that the Juicy Fruits have recorded an album of his music done 50's style, goes to destroy all of the vinyl record at Swan’s factory... but trips and his head lands in the record press... smashing his face and leaving the offensive album permanently engraved in his skin.

After recovering, Winslow goes to the Paradise Club where the Fruits are rehearsing for opening night (as a new group: the Beach Bums, doing early 60s style music)... and dons a costume and mask from the costume storage room (becoming The Phantom) before planting a bomb that injures the Fruits and stopping them from desecrating his music. Buy the border Winslow is captured by Swan, who locks him away to complete the rock opera for Phoenix to sing... except Swan has no intention of having Phoenix open the club, she’s way too wholesome. And when Winslow has finished his rock opera? Swan walls him into the room faster than you can say Poe’s Cask Of Amontillado.

So Swan has to find a new opening night act for the Paradise in a great *one shot* audition scene that features a dozen music acts so unbelievable that they’re believable... and settles on glam rocker Beef (Gerrit Graham, stealing whatever movie he is cast in). One of the great things about this film, which came up in the panel discussion afterwards, is how well it *predicts* new music trends and even specific bands. It’s kind of like NETWORK in that regard, you see it now and think they are making fun of KISS when they use the Juicy Fruit band members dressed in black with patterns painted on their faces in black and white... but KISS didn’t even exist when this film was made! Though this is a satire of the music business, it’s crazy creations would eventually come true! Buy the border On opening night for the Paradise, Winslow as the Phantom breaks out and threatens Beef, telling him that only Phoenix can sing his songs, and anyone else who tries dies. Beef doesn’t want to go on, Philbin insists... and in the middle of Beef’s CALIGARI style opening number the Phantom zips a neon lightning bolt down at Beef, electrocutes him, and Beef fries on stage... while the audience calls for an encore. Swan has Phoenix go out and sing to calm the crowd... and she’s a massive hit!





Realizing it will take something really amazing to top a rock star burning alive on stage, Swan decides he will *marry* Phoenix on stage, and then have a sniper kill her dead. That’s entertainment! Now Winslow/Phantom must stop this from happening, even though he knows that the woman he loves has willingly agreed to marry Swan in exchange for stardom. No matter what happens, things will not end happily ever after.

Buy the border

After the film, the panel spent about an hour talking about the making of the film (in Dallas Texas standing in for New York City) where their production designer Jack Fisk (his first film) had an assistant named Sissy Spacek who would later star in the movie CARRIE for DePalma after starring in some film called BADLANDS. Jack and Sissy married and are still together, and I bumped into them and chatted at some low rent Oscar party that made the mistake of inviting me. Jack and Sissy were not on the panel, but hammy GerritGraham, still hot Jessica Harper, Paul Williams, Juicy Fruits Harold Oblong and Jeffrey Comanor (who was carried onto stage, then got up and jogged around a little), plus the film’s editor Paul Hirsch, who learned how to edit films with DePalma who then introduced him to his Hollywood Brats friends where Lucas hired him to edit STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and he later edited MISSION IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL and SOURCE CODE and RAY and a zillion other big films, and William Finley’s widow Susan joined the panel later (she’s in the movie as an extra!). The always amazing Edgar Wright moderated. They had all kinds of great stories about making the film, and Williams talked about making this crazy decision to write music which was the opposite of what he was known for while trashing the industry he was a part of.

It was an amazing night, and the film is just as funny as the day it was made. A real gem waiting to be discovered by any of you who haven’t seen it yet. The songs have great pop hooks and subversive lyrics... you’ll be humming them later. Because it’s DePalma it is filled with all kinds of crazy film experiments and homages, including a recreation of the opening scene from TOUCH OF EVIL as a musical number with the Beach Bums band!



The Panel Discussion (someone videoed it!)

Bill

Buy the border

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lancelot Link Monday: Actual Summer

Lancelot Link Monday! It's Actual Summer now, so we are getting Big Summer Films... and it's the correct season. 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 Finding Dory.................... $73,234,746
2 ID4 2........................... $41,600,000
3 Central Intelligence............ $18,370,000
4 Shallows........................ $16,700,000
5 Free James....................... $7,772,000
6 Conjuring 2...................... $7,705,000
7 Now U See 2...................... $5,650,000
8 X Men Apoc....................... $2,475,000
9 TMNT Shadows..................... $2,400,000
10 Alice 2.......................... $2,147,144




2) Indie Box Office Report. (They Can't All Be Blockbusters.)

3) The BLOOD SIMPLE Pitch Trailer That Launched The Coen Brothers.

4) The 100 Most Powerful People In Hollywood! (Spoiler: I didn't make this list, either.)

5) SHALLOWS Writer Sells Another Spec!

6) Oliver Stone On SNOWDEN and CONAN.

7) Two Of The "Movie Brats" Discuss Film For 45 Minutes. (The "Movie Brats" were a group of young directors who often worked on projects together behind the scenes - critiquing each other's films in rough cut & making suggestions, etc... in this case, we have Scorsese and DePalma who shared screenwriters and cast members...)

8) WESTWORLD - The Original JURASSIC PARK Which Inspired The HBO Series.

9) BET Award Winners!

10) A Look At Hitchcock's FRENZY... Plus The Screenplay!

11) Casting News Part 1. Casting News Part 2.

12) Has Oscar Season Already Began????

And the Car Chase Of The Week:



What's the connection to this week's #1 movie?

Bill

Buy The DVDs

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

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Dinner:
Pages:
Bicycle:

Movie:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fridays With Hitchcock: HITCH 20: ARTHUR

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that I am a "guest expert" on. The series looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the fourth episode of the third season, which looks at point of view and breaking the fourth wall in Hitchcock's work and in ARTHUR...

Not the great Dudley Moore movie nor the terrible remake, but an episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS directed by Hitchcock and starring that fellow who was the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE...



Once again I am in front of Universal Studios where this episode of HITCHCOCK PRESENTS was shot... and yes, they brought hundreds of live chickens and some chicken wranglers onto the lot and into the soundstage (this episode was shot indoors with some awesome background paintings making it look as if were out on a farm in the middle of the UK somewhere). Check out the shot where the police are searching - that’s an indoor set!

The episode focuses on breaking the fourth wall, but underneath that is something pretty common in film - the use of Voice Over Narration to get us into the head of a potentially unsympathetic character. If a character may be difficult to identify with, one of the techniques often used is to allow us to see the world through their eyes by giving them a running commentary - usually funny and amusing and entertaining. Adding an extra layer of story. So in a movie like DOUBLE INDEMNITY where our protagonist is a murderer, it helps to know their motivations and understand them... and it also helps that Walter Neff is amusing so that the narration is entertaining. The example I often use is another film from the same director, SUNSET BLVD, where protagonist and narration Joe Gillis is not just a screenwriter, his narration is filled with amazingly witty lines. You could remove the narration and the film still works perfectly, but it is so much better with that added layer of entertainment... plus it turns Gillis and Neff (and Arthur) into our friends and confidants. They are telling us their secret thoughts.



As I said in the episode, having Arthur talk directly into the camera also turns this into an odd satire on cooking shows, which were popular at the time. We watch Arthur prepare some meals, his presentation is beautiful, and he’s charismatic. Because cooking shows were inexpensive to produce in studios (still are) there were a bunch of them at the time, and the narration is just part of that.

But the narration doesn’t let the writer off the hook for telling the story visually - we see the dishes in the sink, the disk as the ashtray, the broken cup... and the audience wants to kill her, too. She has disrupted his orderly life. The narration might get us closer to Arthur, but all of those images, plus Helen herself, make us fully understand the chaos she has brought to Arthur’s life.

The actress who plays Helen, Hazel Court, may look familiar to you because she was a regular in all of those Corman Poe horror flicks we looked at last year during Halloween. THE RAVEN, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, and PREMATURE BURIAL among others. This episode even feels a bit like a Poe story. A UK actress who came to Hollywood and played all kinds of roles in lower budget movies and TV. I love her in this role - she manages to be irritating when doing minor things.



One of the fun things is the noise the chicken makes in the opening scene of the film is the same noise that Helen makes when Arthur strangles her. You can decide whether it’s the chicken or Helen’s strangulation sounds.

Which brings up strangulation - interesting, because that was the murder method in Hitchcock’s ROPE as well, and in both we side with the killers who then play a game of cat & mouse with an authority figure who is also a very close friend. In ROPE it’s their professor played by Jimmy Stewart, and here it’s the local constable played by Patrick MacNee who is his best friend. This is one of two episodes directed by Hitchcock that MacNee was in, what is that? 10% of the 20 episodes Hitchcock directed? The other episode is next up on HITCH 20, I think (this episode is Season 5 Episode 1 and that episode is Season 5 Episode 2). But the relationship between Arthur and the Constable is interesting because they are both close friends and on opposite sides of the law. There’s a great conversation about being alone, and therefor in control of your life. This gets to the core of what the story is about, aside from running your wife through an industrial strength grinder.

Hitchcock often experimented with giving the audience a walk on the wild side by telling the story from the “villain”s point of view. ROPE and PSYCHO and this episode put us in the shoes of the badguys and show us the world through their eyes, and make us worry that they will be caught be the authorities. And just for the trivia side of things, the female lead in PSYCHO, Janet Leigh, was the female lead in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE which starred Lawrence Harvey... the star of this episode ARTHUR. Everything is connected!

- Bill

Now on to the NEW book!
This is the "pre-launch" date, there will be an official Launch Party soon, with party hats and noise makers and clowns and balloons and... Okay, maybe none of those things (unless you buy them yourself). But from now until the end of the month the book is $2 off!

HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE


LEARN SUSPENSE FROM THE MASTER!

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed 52 movies, was known as the “Master Of Suspense”; but what exactly is suspense and how can *we* master it? How does suspense work? How can *we* create “Hitchcockian” suspense scenes in our screenplays, novels, stories and films?

This book uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to show the difference between suspense and surprise, how to use “focus objects” to create suspense, the 20 iconic suspense scenes and situations, how plot twists work, using secrets for suspense, how to use Dread (the cousin of suspense) in horror stories, and dozens of other amazing storytelling lessons. From classics like “Strangers On A Train” and “The Birds” and “Vertigo” and “To Catch A Thief” to older films from the British period like “The 39 Steps” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to his hits from the silent era like “The Lodger” (about Jack The Ripper), we’ll look at all of the techniques to create suspense!

Films Included: NOTORIOUS, SABOTAGE, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, THE 39 STEPS, REBECCA, TO CATCH A THIEF, FRENZY, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, THE LODGER, THE BIRDS, TORN CURTAIN, SABOTEUR, VERTIGO, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1955), SUSPICION, and NUMBER SEVENTEEN. 17 Great Films!

Only 125,000 words!

Accidentally still at the May Price of $3.99

Click here for more info!

OTHER COUNTRIES:

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.



- Bill

Of course, my first book on Hitchcock...




HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR



Click here for more info!

HITCHCOCK DID IT FIRST!

We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

Bill

Thursday, June 23, 2016

THRILLER Thursday: Trio For Terror

Trio For Terror

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 1, Episode: 25.
Airdate: March 14, 1961


Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Barré Lyndon (?) based on stories by August Derleth (Extra Passenger), Wilkie Collins (Strange Bed) and Nelson Bond (Medusa).
Cast: Reginald Owens, Robin Hughes, John Abbott, Michael Pate, Richard Lupino.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Producer: William Frye




Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “This is an English pub. Just the place for a little something to warm the cockles of your heart... while I chill your blood. They give you a mulled claret here, guarenteed to fortify you against, well, against anything. If the people’s clothes seem strange, well it’s because we’re back in 1905. When a dollar was still a dollar and the British pound was a beautiful gold coin. We are going to see three forces of evil. Three stories, each a masterpiece of strangeness and terror.”

(First Story)

“In this room is a young man who is on his way to commit murder. She wants money, he wants her. Well, to satisfy both of these desirous young people someone will have to die. Drink your claret, you’re going to need it. You are about to meet the extra passenger in one of the eeriest tales ever told.”

(Second Story)

“You’ll take another glass of this claret, of course. It will brace you for a different force of evil. All of the night birds show up in a pub like this sooner or later. Musicians between shows, detectives looking for someone, peers of the realm, reporters, actors, men about town, floatsom of a great city. People in trouble, or looking for trouble.”

(Third Story)

“I sometimes think, perhaps you do too, how outrageous it would have seemed to anyone a hundred years ago if they had been told that someday men would be doing exactly what you’re doing now. Listening to a voice, watching a picture plucked as it were out of the air. We’ve learned a lot in the last 100 years. But how much do you suppose had been forgotten in the last five thousand? You know how scientists scoff at folklore and ancient beliefs? But every now and then they amaze themselves with a discovery that our remote ancestors were right afterall. Our third take of terror contains the echo of an ancient fable which may not be a fable at all. It begins with a manhunt, a search for a murderer, a strangler if you will.”



Synopsis: A turn of the century PULP FICTION episode, with a pub as the hub instead of that bar where Butch and Vincent Vega hang out.

THE EXTRA PASSENGER


Our first story begins in our turn of the century British pub where Simon (Richard Lupino) and Katie (Iris Bristol) plot murder. Simon’s crazy rich uncle spends all of his time studying the occult. When he dies, Simon becomes very wealthy... but Katie suggests that the old guy might need a little prodding into the grave and Simon has a perfect plan. An alibi that the police could never break. He buys out a private compartment on a train, the Conductor punches his ticket. When the train comes to the stop near his uncle’s house he sneaks off the train, races to his Uncle’s house. His Uncle (Terence de Marney) has a rooster chained to a Ouiji Board kinda thing, and is so focused on his experiment to bring a flower back to life temporarily that he doesn’t hear Simon sneak in... until it’s too late. Simon beats his Uncle to death with a pestle, wipes the blood from his hands, and leaves the house.



Outside he has a car stashed. He gets in the car and speeds to the next train station. According to his time tables, he can just make the train because the road takes a more direct route than the train. He parks the car, has to run to make the train, sneaks back into his compartment *seconds* before the Conductor checks into the compartment. Simon pretends he had dozed off, now he has the perfect alibi. He never left the train. He has gotten away with murder!

But when the Conductor leaves he notices he’s not alone in the car... there is a strange man in black sitting quietly in the corner. Simon tells him this is a private compartment, the Man In Black says his Uncle was a warlock and had the ability to send a *walking corpse* to do his bidding. When the Man In Black looks up... it’s Simon’s Dead Uncle! He attacks Simon...



The Detective examines Simon’s dead body on the train and says he was killed by a rooster’s talons.

A TERRIBLY STRANGE BED


Our second story begins at the bar of that pub, where Collins (Robin Hughes) and Ashton (Francis Bethencourt) are discussing how terribly bored they are. They’ve seen all of the plays on the West End, what is left for entertainment? An older woman (Jacqueline Squire) sitting alone at a table pipes up and suggests they go to Hussar House, which has gambling in the back room. The two men mention the establishment’s reputation: in the past dead bodies have been found in the vicinity with rumors that they were gamblers robbed of their winnings. The old woman says those are just rumors. Though Ashton pleads exhaustion, Collins decides to try his luck.



The back room at Hussar House is filled with gamblers, and Collins finds himself winning most of their money over the course of the night. He has a massive stack of chips! The Hussar himself (Reginald Owen), a war hero in full uniform, takes Collins under his wing and makes sure he is treated well. His drinks are on the house, and the Husser makes sure Collins’ glass is always full. Collins feels so lucky, he decides to bet everything on one spin of the roulette wheel... and wins! The Husser shows him how to wrap his money in an old cloth so that he won’t be robbed on the street... the cloth weighs as much as a cannon ball! But Collins has had so much to drink he’s wobbly. The Hussar comps him into a room for the night: the turn of the century version of a VIP room complete with a huge canopied bed. Collins puts his winnings under his pillow and goes to sleep.

In the middle of the night, Collins hears a noise and awakens... the canopy is lowering, about to crush him! He rolls out of the bed at the last moment and the canopy crushes the pillows... which would have been his head!



After he catches his breath, the canopy begins to rise again... and a secret door begins to open in the wall! Collins grabs his winnings and pops out the window onto the ledge, hiding. He grabs a drain pipe and starts to climb down... but the pipe breaks and he almost falls! It was never meant to hold a man. Lots of suspense generated. He finally gets to the alley, races away with his winnings wrapped in the old bit of cloth.

He gets to Ashton’s flat, tells his friend about winning all of the money and almost being killed. Then opens the old cloth to expose... one of the cannon balls that had decorated the military themed casino. And his winnings?

A yacht with the Hussar and the Old Woman from the pub sails for tropical climes.

THE MASK OF MEDUSA




A scream in the night! The Leighton Stranger has struck again! Another woman killed! But this time, the police have a clue: the killer left behind a black leather glove. The police have quadroned off the section of London where the woman was killed and are doing a house to house search for a man wearing only one glove (Michael Jackson?).

Hiding in an alley, Shanner (Michael Pate) runs his glove along the wall... the other hand is bare. As the police search, he tries to find somewhere to hide... an unlocked door. But this is the middle of the night, every door is locked... except this one! A strange shop with a sign announcing that it features statues of 12 Famous Killers. Shanner takes off his single glove and puts it in his pocket, then sneaks into the dark shop...

A group of people are *starring at him* in the darkness! Shanner freaks out! Then he realizes these are the statues. He puts his hands around the neck of a female statue... and someone *touches him* in the darkness.



The shop owner Mr. Milo (John Abbott) turns on the light and asks if Shanner would like Milo to give him a tour. Shanner acts like a customer, and Milo goes from statue to statue telling the history of this killer, his methods, his victims, and other interesting information. It’s creepy. The statues are very detailed, very lifelike... but made of stone. Milo finally comes to the notorious killer Dr. Hartwell, and Shanner is confused: how could Milo have made a statue of the man, there were no known photographs of him and his victims couldn’t very well describe him. Plus, he was never captured! In fact, the police have never captured any of these killers on display! Shanner is suspicious and asks how he came to sculpt such lifelike figures. Milo says he has methods of his own. Shanner asks if this is a model of Dr. Hartwell... or the doctor himself? “Yes. That was Dr. Hartwell.” Shanner is shocked: “You killed them and petrified them! You’re a worse murderer than any of them!” Mr. Milo says he did not kill them. It was the Gorgon’s head. He is from Greece, and was digging around and found the head of Medusa carefully kept in a case...

Shanner wants to call him crazy... but there is a knock at the door. The Police doing their house to house search! Milo opens the door... and there are now 13 statues in the collection. Shanner stands very still as a pair of detectives (Richard Peel and Noel Drayton) enter the shop. There’s some great suspense as the two detectives poke around in the shop as they tell Mr. Milo they are chasing Leighton Strangler, and for the first time they have a real clue: the black glove. One of the detectives looks at the statues, examining them closely, commenting on how detailed they are but also mentioning that if they were statues of convicted and executed killers Milo might have a bigger crowd. One of the detective comes right up to Shanner, but moments before he discovers that Shanner is *not* a statue, the other detective says they need to be getting on to find the strangler.



Once they are gone, Shanner suggests that Milo help him sneak past the police. He says he’s had some problems with the police in the past, and if Milo could put him in a crate and then hire a wagon to take him past the police, he would gladly pay. When Shanner reaches into his pocket top pull out some money, he also pulls out the single black leather glove... and it drops on the floor between the two men. Milo looks at the glove and states that Shanner is the Strangler, the killer the police are searching for!

Shanner says that Milo is by far worse, having killed all of these other killers. Milo says they were turned to stone by the Medusa, and Shanner doesn’t believe him. Milo opens an ornate case, standing behind it, and exposes the head of Medusa... and Shanner turns to stone!

The last shot has Milo changing the sign on the door from 12 statues to 13.





Review: When I think of the THRILLER TV show, I think of Ida Lupino. When I watched these as a kid when they were rerun on some non network channel, my favorite episodes were GUILLOTINE and LATE DATE (coming up) and both were based on short stories by Cornell Woolrich, one of the three fathers of Noir fiction (oddly, there are no mothers). Sometime later I tracked down Woolrich’s novels and short stories (which had just been republished) and read them all. One of my first trips to Los Angeles included a trip to the UCLA Special Collections Library which housed a bunch of ancient pulp magazines, and I spent a few days reading stories in Dime Detective and others by Woolrich and Norbert Davis and many others. But also in those closing credits of GUILLOTINE was the name of the director, Ida Lupino. Wait, that’s can’t be the actress from that Bogart film HIGH SIERRA and that awesome Noir flick ON DANGEROUS GROUND, can it? Turns out it was. Turns out Lupino reached a point in her movie star career where she realized she would someday be too old to star and decided to start working on the other side of the camera. She wrote and directed all kinds of crime films from thrillers to noir to just plain old action. And she was *great*! Probably one of the main reasons why she caught my attention was that her career intersected with that on Don Siegel, who is one of my favorite directors. He directed a little film called DIRTY HARRY you may have heard of. Lupino cowrote PRIVATE HELL 36 which Siegel directed. Lupino cowrote that film with one husband () and costarred in it with another husband (Howard Duff), probably making for a tense set. But she went from actress to screenwriter to director, and was excellent at all of them. On Trailer Tuesday a while back I featured her film THE HITCHHIKER, which is edge of the seat suspense.



Lupino treats this episode like a movie, using camera angles and movement to build suspense and create visual reveals and reversals. I mentioned that last week’s episode had a pedestrian sequence of a character climbing a spiral staircase to their possible doom, but in this episode Lupino makes scenes like climbing down the drainpipe outside of the Hussar House incredibly suspenseful. But the most amazing bit of direction in the episode is an amazing single shot in MEDUSA where we go from Shanner looking at the Medusa head and pan and dolly to the Medusa head with Milo behind it, and then after Milo closes the case we follow him back to Shanner... who is now a statue. All in one shot. No cuts. I call these “sells it shots” because without a cut Shanner the human has becomes the statue of Shanner, and that sells that it really happened and isn’t some movie trick. That guy really turned to stone! Of course, behind the scenes there was probably a great deal of careful and quiet moving of the actor off his mark and the statue onto the mark. But tricky and inventive shots like this are something unexpected on a TV show’s tight shooting schedule... and this particular episode has *three* stories with *three* different casts, which would have been difficult for anyone to pull off. But all three segments use a level of visual storytelling that most of the previous episodes never got close to.

Next up is an episode based on a Woolrich story followed by *another* episode based on a Woolrich story followed by an episode based on Robert Bloch’s second most famous piece of writing.

Bill



Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Report:
A Princess Of Mars & Gods Of Mars

There's a new TARZAN movie about to open, so why not rerun this from 5 years ago?

One of the reasons I ended up buying the Kindle was to re-read a bunch of the books I read as a kid – most of which are public domain and *free* on Kindle (but cost $ as paper books, and some are no longer in print). Some of the first books I downloaded were the Burroughs Martian novels, which I read when I was about 13 years old. Probably 12. Though I was already a reader – a pudgy uncoordinated kid who wasn't good at sports, when I was in the sixth grade I had a teacher who opened the door to fiction for myself and probably every student in his class.




Bob Olson had a bunch of things in his classroom that made him the cool teacher – from animals and reptiles we had to take care of as part of class, to shelves and shelves of paperback books. Mr. Olson had this theory that if you gave kids who wanted to be adults, books that were aimed at adults (though safe for kids); they would read them to feel older and more sophisticated. “I'm not reading kid's books, I'm reading grown up books.” His “adult books” were also genre books – science fiction and private eyes and spies and fun stuff. I don't know what he had for the girls – I didn't read any of those books – but I imagine he had romance and adventure and gothic thrillers like “The Spiral Staircase” (which was actually called something else). Fun stuff. Bob Olson introduced me to Doc Savage and Perry Mason and Donald Lamm & Bertha Cool and Isaac Asimov and Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others. And because these books were adventures – and not educational in any way – I read shelves of them. Mr. Olson required that you read a certain number of books during the year, but you could get extra credit for reading more. I had a ton of extra credit.

Edgar Rice Burroughs appealed to my imagination – Tarzan was okay, but the novels that took place in weird worlds like Pellucidar and Barsoom and Venus and that World That Time Forgot transported me from my crappy blue collar life to some amazing world. Bob Olson's bookshelves changed my life. Made my life bearable. And probably made me a short story writer and novel writer and screenwriter.




The Burroughs Mars novels are probably responsible for most of the sci-fi fantasy today. There would be no STAR WARS without them – and Jaba The Hutt's flying boat is right from Burroughs. Also, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and every sword and sorcery novel comes from Burroughs. Burroughs stuck a bunch of stuff together that had never been in the same story before and created a genre. Now that they are finally bringing one of his Mars novels to the screen, I thought it would be cool to re-read them and see if they still held up. This is tricky because the stuff that a 12 or 13 year old boy likes may not be what a dude with some gray in his hair likes. The language and storytelling that a kid likes may be just awful when you are an adult. So I expected to read the novels and just kind of think they're good kid's books.

Except that's not what happened. Though I have only read the first three books in the series so far, and I'm only going to talk about the first book, PRINCESS OF MARS, because that's the one the movie is based on – all three have been fun and exciting reads. The old version of me likes them just as much as the young version did. Burroughs could *write*. Though some of the things are a little dated, I looked past those elements and just got caught up in the wild-ass adventure.




The books are this weird combination of western and swashbuckler and gladiator story and alien world travelogue. John Carter is a Civil War veteran out West to make his fortune who is attacked by Indians, hides in a cave – wounded – and goes into a coma... waking up on Mars! Teleportation. On Mars there are two main races (others pop up in later novels) – the Red Martians who are humanoid and have kingdoms, and the Green Martians who have an extra set of arms and are much taller than humans and are savage warriors who do not know love or compassion – kind of the Apaches from western pulp novels, only weird. Carter is captured by the Greens, but in trying to escape discovers that the difference in gravity allows him to jump like a danged frog!

The Greens would normally kill him, but because of his jumping skill they figure they'd better take him back to their chief. The Greens ride horse-like animals called Thoats – that also have an extra set of legs. Everything has extra legs or arms on Mars. This Green tribe inhabits a city deserted by the lost Martian race centuries ago. They have a guard dog-like thing make sure he doesn't escape, and have a female feed him. Carter learns Martian from the female – who is not like most of the other Greens, she was raised by her mother instead of hatching in an egg incubator and being raised by the tribe. She is *kind* to him. The other Green who Carter befriends is Tars Tarkas – a warrior who grows to respect Carter and thinks maybe they should not kill him.

When a few flying ships of Red Martians fly past, the Greens blast them out of the sky... and discover that one of the passengers is Red Martian Princess Dejah Thoris – who is ultra hot, and naked. The Martians do not believe in clothing. Let me tell you, to a 12 year old boy, this was great stuff! Hot naked women! The Frazetta book covers helped fuel the fantasies. Anyway, the rest of the novel has Carter rescue the Princess, lose her, get captured and fight in the gladiator ring against the prisoner who has become his best friend in the prison, discover the source of the Martian atmosphere – which is dying out... so all of the people on Mars will soon die, becomes best friends with Tars Tarkas, and has a lot of great amazing adventures. There are sword fights and climbing castle walls and great suspense scenes where Carter disguises himself as a Martian to infiltrate a fortress to try and save Dejah Thoris again. It's funny and heroic and exciting and romantic and non-stop fun.




One of the things I liked about it was how Burroughs creates vivid characters Рthough Tars Tarkas is one of the savage Green Martians, he's a a fully dimensional character rather than some 2-D clich̩. He is revealed to be very different than his exterior would lead you to believe Рthere is a great backstory that exposes a secret past. Dejah Thoris is no damsel in distress, either Рshe can kick ass and in one big twist completely rejects Carter, killing any chance of romance... and the romance is the through-line!

The theme of the story is that being kind to your enemies gets you farther than killing them – and Carter starts by being kind to his Thoat (Green Martians beat them into submission), he makes friends with the vicious dog-thing they have guarding him, befriends Tars and the female Green Martian who feeds him, and spends a lot of time trying to get along with the Green Martians who want to kill him. Carter has to make friends with his enemies and fight his friends to the death! Lots of great drama.

The book is fast paced, the travelogue elements give you an amazing look at this alien world, and there is sword fighting and beautiful Princesses to rescue and some big emotional moments. I finished the first book and couldn't wait to read the second... which is good because it seems as if some of the characters from GODS OF MARS made it into the film...

GODS OF MARS



The first book is about the Red Martians and Green Martians, book #2 introduces some other colors to the mix. It’s years later, and John Carter is in New York City... wishing that he was back on Mars. His wish comes true - and he ends up at the Lost Sea Of Korus at the end of the Iss River on Mars, where religious Martians travel to meet their God. It’s a big spiritual quest - old people and sick people and those who just feel they would be better off serving the holy Goddess Issus take the trek up the river and find...

Well, John Carter sees what they will find, and is shocked that it is nothing holy. Instead, Plant Men *eat* some of the pilgrims and enslave the others for the evil Therns - White Martians - who are supposed to be the Monk-like religious leaders, but are actually bad guys. They manipulate the other Martian races for their own profit. The lead Thern is an evil dude who wants Carter dead because he knows too much - and it seems that Mark Strong will play that role in the movie. They are setting up the sequel - which reports say is already being written.

Carter ends up in a prison along with Tar Tarkas (who was leading a search party) and they meet Thuvia - another Martian hottie who gets her own book, later - and so begins our series of adventures for this volume. The books all have a couple of strange worlds, a gladiator bout, some twists where someone trusted ends up a bad guy, a race against time, and LOTS of swordplay and romance.

In the Therns’ prison, John Carter plans a revolt, escapes with Thuvia and Tars with much sword fighting and suspense as they sneak through tunnels. Thuvia wants to show her appreciation for the rescue, John Carter says he’s taken. Dude is in love with Princess Dejah Thoris and no naked hottie is going to steal his heart. We find out that Tars was searching for Carter’s *son*! Carter has a kid? But Tars tells him his son may be dead - he was kidnapped and never seen again...

Then they all get captured by Martian Pirates (Black Martians) - who have cool flying pirate ships - and taken to their subterranean city - where the *actual Goddess Issus* resides. There is a temple, and the Goddess is an evil old bitch who uses female slaves for all sorts of unspeakable things - then kills them a year later... and throws the males into the gladiator ring. Though these gladiator fights are different than the ones in PRINCESS, it's still a chance for Carter to do a lot of sword fighting. Oh, and there’s this rotating device that traps people for a full Martian year inside a container with no food (except anyone else who may have been trapped inside with them). Burroughs always has these twisted-but-cool torture devices and things in the books that 12 year old boys love.

The thing that doesn’t work in the book, or maybe does depending on what Burroughs wanted, is that when John Carter meets a teenaged Martian kid in the underground prison, he never figures out that this kid might be his son. We figure it out right away. Maybe Burroughs was using dramatic irony and wanted us to figure it out before Carter does - but it makes Carter look stupid. There are prison scenes between Carter and the kid where the kid seems to have some of Carter’s strength... and Carter still doesn't figure it out!

But Carter and the kid escape from the prison, rescue Thuvia... only to lose her in the one-year-prison-thing (but they shove food through the door and hope she survives), make friends with one of the Pirates (Carter is great at making friends and bringing warring tribes together) and then they escape to Carter’s Martian home in the kingdom of Helium...

Where his princess Dejah Thoris has recently left. After the “death” of John Carter a decade ago, and the kidnapping of their son by the Pirates, she decided to trace the River Iss to the Lost Sea Of Korus to meet her maker. Plus - Carter’s nemesis has taken over the Martian government. Now, if this were a STAR WARS prequel that subplot would involve a lot of government meetings and stuff like that - here we get fights to the death.

Now Carter and his son and Tars must go back to rescue Dejah Thoris from that evil Thern dude... and much sword fighting occurs! Except first Carter must deal with his nemesis who forbids the rescue and does not believe that the Holy Therns are bad guys - that would be blasphemy! So Carter has to do some sword fighting at home before he can rescue the woman he loves.

I have no idea what was happening in the USA with religion 100 years ago, but the theme here seems to be about blindly following a religion when it's been taken over by those who prey on those who pray. Both the Therns and the Goddess Issus are using religion as power in order to abuse the faithful. Both have become wealthy while their faithful suffer - and they created much of the suffering in order to keep those faithful faithful. The Therns are all about creating problems so that people become more religious... which gives them more power. I have no idea if 100 years ago they had some version of our boob-tube-reverands and their send-me-money ministries, but this book seems aimed at those guys... behind the sword fights and daring rescues and wild chases through dark places.

It makes sense to use the Therns in the first film, because they play such a big part in the second book... and if they make a sequel they have already introduced the villain. The best thing about Burroughs' Mars series is there are no teddy bear aliens... so no chance of an Ewok spin off.

I'm excited by the JOHN CARTER (OF MARS) movie because it looks cool – though Dejah Thoris is wearing clothes. Willem Defoe voices Tars Tarkas and the animation is based on his body movement - that is *great* casting. Defoe is such a strange guy. I hope they don't screw it up, and I hope it's a hit so that they can do all of the books. When I was a kid, my favorite was CHESSMEN OF MARS... and soon I will find out if that one holds up, too.

Here's a review of the movie:
JOHN CARTER screening review.

Each of the Frazetta covers clicks to a free Kindle version of a Mars book on Amazon.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Put A Donkey In It! -
Dinner:
Pages:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Trailer Tuesday: Captain Blood

Directed by: Micheal Curtiz.
Written by: Casey Robinson based on the novel by Rahael Sabatini.
Starring: Olivia DeHaviland, Errol Flynn, Lionel Atwill, Basil Rathbone.


CAPTAIN BLOOD is one of my all time favorite movies. Based on a novel by Rapheal Sabatini that I read in grade school, thanks to my 6th grade teacher Bob Olsen who had these massive bookshelves in his classroom filled with all kinds of adventure and romance and other genres of fiction - not kids books, *adult* books. Of course, nothing you couldn’t let a 6th grader read - but Bob’s theory was that kids would read grown up books just to show that they are grown up - and books that were more realistic would be interesting to kids who lived in the real world. Nothing that talked down. We had to write a huge stack of book reports every year, and extra credit and prizes to hose who read the most books. I think Bob Olsen save my life, gave me a direction, and made me what I am today. And all of the Sabatini novels on his shelves I gobbled up... and bought copies of my own so that I could re-read them over summer vacation.



BLOOD is a pirate adventure book about Dr. Peter Blood, who takes no sides in war - his job is to help the injured. When he treats a rebel fighting against the government of England, he’s arrested and put on trial. Blood tells the judge he’s a doctor, not as rebel. Neutral. The judge sentences him to *death* for saving the life of a rebel. Instead of death, they ship all of the convicts to the British colonies in the Caribbean as slaves to work on plantations. Blood and his slave pals all get whipped and mistreated... and Blood has now taken a side - with the rebels. Oh, he’s bought by plantation owner’s niece Olivia DeHaviland - she buys him just to piss off her uncle. Blood insults him.

After being whipped for being insolent, Blood plans an escape for the slaves by boat. Many of the slaves have been in the navy, and know how to sail. One guy is the key to everything - he was a navigator. Without him, they’re dead in the water. The day before the escape plan, the plantation owner sees Blood whispering to the navigator and while Blood is off working, whips the navigator kid to try and get him to talk. This is a great scene, because if the kid talks - the escape is foiled. If he doesn’t talk - they may whip him to death, and the escape is foiled. Either way, they’re screwed. The kid doesn’t talk, and is close to death - which ruins the escape plan. Except Spanish ships attack and d loot the town... which creates a perfect diversion for their escape. They manage to carry the navigator guy to the docks where their boat is waiting... but it was shelled by the Spanish ship! It’s sunk! Blood hatches a plan to *steal the Spanish ship* while the Spaniards are on shore looting... and the slaves become pirates.

One thing I have to mention are the supporting characters in this film - they are so well written and well played that they become real (even if the dialogue gets a little clunky now and then). There’s a slave-pirate who always quotes the Bible... but finds ironic passages to quote, so he comes off funny instead of as a zealot. There is a tough guy, always itching for a fight. The guy who always has his flask - even in sword fights. All of the bit-part slave-pirates have *personalities* and their own little goals. The colony’s Governor is a great character - this fey, flamboyant guy in a powdered wig always complaining about his gout. The Governor’s doctors both have distinctive personalities. The guy in debtor’s prison who sells Blood the boat... and gets swept up in the escape, becoming one of Blood’s pirates by mistake. Every single minor character is an individual in this film.

And all of the great character actors under contract at Warner Bros play these roles as if they’re competing for an Oscar. If a character is only in one scene, they do everything in their power to be the most memorable character in that scene. You end up with all of these amazing actors playing amazingly well defined characters. I’ve always wanted to take over programming at TCM for a week and do a festival of great character actors in bit parts. You would see several movies with completely different stars in different genres and wonder why these films are on the same program... then you’d notice some guy like Ned Sparks is in every movie. Who is Ned Sparks you are probably asking? Well, he’s this guy who played bit parts in a lot of movies who had a very distinctive voice - and you’d recognize his voice from a couple of cartoon characters who swiped it. I think most people know the cartoons more than the real guy whose voice the imitated. But BLOOD has all of these great bit part players (but no Ned Sparks) playing the pirates - the guy in the background of some shot not only has a character, the actor playing that character is trying to make sure you remember him!


Blood has a pirate constitution which is basically that all money is divided evenly - no one gets a larger share. All work is divided evenly - no one gets to goof off. And if one of them is injured on the job, they get a pension (of course, it’s a pirate movie, so this is all about how many pieces of eight you get if your arm gets chopped off in battle... and it goes through every savage injury you can imagine and some you can’t). Oh, and no raping women. There are enough women of easy virtue at Tortuga, no reason to rape any. And the big one - people are not for sale.

So we get all kinds of great pirate adventures, and on Tortuga Blood decides to partner with a French pirate played by Basil Rathbone using that fake French accent from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. More pirate adventures... and Rathbone captures a ship carrying... Olivia DeHaviland! Rathbone’s plan is to rape her and then ransom her to her plantation owner Uncle who is now the governor of the British colony. When Blood shows, he has to stop that. First with reason, and when that doesn’t work, with some damned cool sword fighting. There’s nothing like a Rathbone/Flynn sword duel - those guys actually knew how to use swords. I think Rathbone was actually a fencing champ or something in real life. So the fight scene is just amazing stuff.



Once Blood wins, he jokes with DeHaviland that she is now *his* slave. He owns her as she once owned him. She hates him... but we know they are going to hook up.

Blood decides to take DeHaviland back to the British Colony, even though he knows her uncle has every British ship in the area trying to capture and kill for him. This leads to a mutiny - and Blood has to talk his pirates into doing him this one favor... that could result in their death. This is a great scene, where one-by-one they join him.

When they get back to the British Colony, they find it under attack by French battleships - and no British ships to defend it. Blood and his pirates have to decide what side they are on, and that leads them to attack the two French ships. A great sea battle - obviously models in some shots, but when they get close enough to throw the grapnels and pull out the swords, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. A non-stop sword fight with lots of twists and turns and reversals.

They began as rebels, became slaves, became pirates, and end as heroes.

How many current movies take their lead characters through so much?

CAPTAIN BLOOD is not only a big exciting adventure film, it makes a point about freedom and equality and how a government needs to answer to the people, not *use* the people.

Bill

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lucky Bastard!

Lance is on vacation, so from 2010...

A week ago a friend mentioned that one of the producers of the BOURNE movies has been reading his blog and said “We should find a project to work on together”. Just out of the blue like that! That lucky bastard!

There are hundreds of screenwriting books and dozens of screenwriting classes and seminars and a bunch of websites offering advice and I almost have 400 Script Tips on my site with information on screenwriting... and nothing on luck. Though most of the books and seminars focus on some sort of over-all formula for screenwriting success, there are discussions about characters and stories and concepts and dialogue and actions and all of that writing stuff... and less discussion about hard work and determination and knowledge and skill and perseverance.... and we always seem to avoid talking about talent (because that can get personal, as in “what your writing lacks is talent” and “the reason why you have yet to succeed is that you have no talent” which often leads to that big question I ask myself daily, “What if I don’t have any talent?”), but we **never** talk about luck. Never.

But luck is just as much a requirement for success in screenwriting as great characters and talent. Maybe even more important than either.

The problem is - luck is even more frightening than talent. Sure, it may be that you are either born with talent or born without talent... but we are in even less control when it comes to luck. You can be on top of the world and then have a change in luck. You can have a run of bad luck. Luck can change. You can lose your luck. Luck can just screw with you. In fact, one of the reasons we don’t talk about luck is because the moment we say we have good luck, our luck changes to bad.

We can have everything else going for us, and luck might pass us by...

Both Mark Twain and Douglas MacArthur said that luck favors the prepared man (or woman) (or typing chicken). In some Script Tip, or maybe here on the blog, I have probably mentioned the time I was walking down a hotel hallways during an event, recognized a producer, ran out to my car and grabbed a script from that box of scripts I keep in the trunk, and ran up... hoping that he was still somewhere in that hallway. He was, he ended up taking my script, it got good coverage and he ended up having a meeting with me that led to the sale of that script. How lucky can you get!

But you may have also been at that event and also passed that producer in the hotel hallway... yet I was the lucky one who sold him a script.

The luck part of that was that he and I were in the same hallway... yet even that is less than luck because it was an event we were both attending. The real luck in this case - when I ran back from my car, he was still in the hallway. He could easily have gone into some room or down the elevator or up the elevator in the time it took me to run to my car and back. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle that he was still there - and that’s the luck part. But if you or someone else in that hallway had run to your car, he would have been there for you, too. So it wasn’t just luck that looked favorably on me, it could have looked favorable on you or anyone else in that hallway as well. The reason why it was only me who got lucky that day? I was prepared. I knew what the producer looked like - everyone else was just walking past him, unaware that he was a producer. Maybe he was just there to teach classes or sell something? I knew what he looked like... which isn’t luck. I ran to my car and popped the trunk, where I keep a box of script copies. And that isn’t luck either. The reason why that box of script copies is in the trunk of my car? Well, the numerous times I didn’t have a script copy when something like this happened. It took me several times to learn that a box of scripts back there with the spare tire was a good idea. There is a *selection* of scripts in that box, and I took a precious second to pick the one I thought this producer might like. The hard part for me was actually talking to the producer - I am scared and shy by nature. But nobody else was bothering him, so just recognizing that he was a producer and saying hello was enough to get a conversation started. Then *he asked me* about the script in my hands! Hey, maybe that’s luck, too - but I don’t think so. After being rejected on a daily basis, it’s easy to forget that a producer’s job is to buy (or develop) screenplays from writers. I had in my hands the thing he needs. He asked if he could read it, I gave it to him. Then, it was up to the screenplay... again, not a luck element.

JUST MY LUCK!


Now, you may think I’m lucky - and that this lucky streak is why I have a career. If you could only have had the lucky breaks that I have had! Okay, that’s a fair thing to think - I’m thinking my buddy with the new BOURNE connection got a lucky break, and in my evil jealous mind I probably think he doesn’t deserve that lucky break as much as I do... except that “lucky break” came from his hard work on his film biz related blog and his hard work in the film biz. The producer didn’t start reading his blog on a whim, he read the blog because it had substance. This lucky bastard friend of mine worked his butt off to advance his career... and even without this bit of luck, his career was moving right along. This bit of luck might help him move a little faster, now - but he wasn’t just standing there waiting for luck to find him - he was DOING SOMETHING.

I believe that I have more than my share of bad luck. Did I even tell you about TREACHEROUS? Okay, I write this script and after pounding on hundreds of doors get someone to read it, and then I have three people reading it, and one makes an offer. A low budget company. But here’s where things get lucky, kind of: the low budget company takes the script to Hemdale (PLATOON) who wants to make it... except my contract pays me the same whether it’s a theatrical or a direct to video movie. Mickey Rourke (when he was a star) signs to play the lead and I do a (free) rewrite to change the lead character to a boxer. Brian Dennehy is going to play the sidekick. Things are moving along, and even though I’m being paid crap - I have a theatrical film from an Oscar winning company. Then Hemdale goes bankrupt! One too many expensive art house films. And my script is dead - Rourke and Dennehy split. But the producer has some connection at Universal home video, and they read the script and like it and want to make it. A new cast is set up at Universal, Rutger Hauer in the lead. Then, the Universal executive dies in a plane crash. The project dies with him - his replacement doesn’t want to make any of the movies he was going to make. (I realize my project being shelved is nothing compared to the loss of his life, and the loss his family must have felt.) Once again the cast leaves and the producer has only the screenplay. He likes the script, and continues to try and get it set up somewhere... and gets it to ITC - a company that used to make TV shows, but now sells the rerun rights to those TV shows. They have been talking to both Cinemax and 20th Century Fox Home Video about projects, and think my script would be a good match for everyone... and set it up as a Cinemax Original Movie with Fox getting home video. And Adam Baldwin and Tia Carrere and C. Thomas Howell are cast... and the film actually gets made! But the director does a page one rewrite and it is nothing like my original screenplay. And it sucks. And the guy from ITC calls me (this is a miracle, by the way) and warns me about the film before the premiere. And the film completely sucks - and they mis-spell my name in the credits (probably a blessing) and that, folks, is my luck in a nut shell! Almost 2 years between initial sale and screening - and that money had been spent long ago by the time I saw the film.

Some of you may have seen a couple of films with my name on them, thought they sucked big time, and think I must be the luckiest guy on earth to still have a career. You and me both! But somewhere along the line I have realized that it is not all luck - and since there is a major string of bad luck for every little bit of good luck that comes my way, I figure there’s some of that perseverance and determination and hard work and maybe even a hint of talent involved in my 20 years making a living putting words in actor’s mouths. I have no agent, no manager, and no real connections. And 15 years ago when I had a couple of back-to-back lucky years where I had *three* scripts go to screen... they were all sold to different companies! So *different* producers all seemed to think those scripts were okay. Though there’s always some luck involved in every deal - the right script the right place the right time, or maybe my query letter arrived on the day they were looking for scripts - once that lucky break opens whatever door, the script still has to be something they want to spend the money to make.

I must be doing something right, it can’t all be lucky breaks.

ALL GOOD LUCK


Just as I believe my luck is mostly the bad kind - I don’t think I’ve ever had a script that was an easy delivery to the screen - I know a guy with amazing luck. He completely lucked into his first script job - he knew some people who needed a script and convinced them to pay him to write it (even though he had never written a script before). He wrote a script, it was not good, they brought in a guy to rewrite it, the rewrite guy did not get credit... and now this guy gets called in sometimes based on that script that he didn’t really write. He got an agent, and has been paid for a few assignments... but it always reaches the point where he delivers a draft, they read it... and think the writing sucks. He’s a friend of a friend, and at one point I suggested he secretly take some screenwriting classes and read a stack of basic screenwriting books and learn how to write a screenplay - but he told me that part didn’t matter as long as people were still hiring him to write scripts and do rewrites. Well, they aren’t anymore, and his agent dumped him, and I’m guessing that the word is out that he is not a good writer. He was depending on luck - depending that he would get hired based on the film and not his writing - and that luck has now dried up. He keeps making his rounds, trying to get hired, and nothing happens at all. He thought because he had a run of good luck that all he ever needed was luck - but the truth is you need to be that prepared man (or woman) (or typing chicken).

What I find interesting about this guy is that he is still not cracking a book or doing anything to improve his craft, nor is he writing spec scripts. Because luck is what got him in, he seems to be focusing on regaining his luck somehow. Though I don’t think you can run out of luck - if you had some lucky break and screwed it up (I’m the king of this) there will eventually be some other lucky break in your future. Just try not to screw that one up, too (I am the king of this). But even if this guy’s luck turns around, he is doing nothing to be prepared this time around. That door might open and he won’t have the script that will keep them from slamming the door on his leg. You can’t depend only on lucky breaks.

Another guy on a message board seemed to have a lucky break, and went from guy with an interesting background to a guy hired by a producer to write a screenplay about his interesting background. The problem is, once he has written that screenplay, what’s next? Right now he is getting a ton of meetings because his project is pretty high profile, but that will not last forever. Even though he is flavor of the month, the month will soon be over... and then where will he be? This is a type of luck - you get that break where suddenly everyone wants to meet with you, but if you are not prepared for that lucky break it will fizzle out. If all you have is one story, or even a couple of stories, those will soon be gone and you will have no stories. A guy who was involved in a big story in Iraq is someone everyone in town wants to meet with, but what happens after he’s had all of those meetings? What happens when he sets up his one or two stories... and what happens when Iraq is old news and no one wants to make any movies about it? The key is to be ready for your luck to change for the worst, and still have the hard work and determination and enough scripts about enough subjects to continue your career.

If you depend on luck, you are depending on something you do not control... and soon that luck will burn itself out and you’ll only have whatever *you* bring to the equation. You need hard work, you need determination, you need all of those other things in addition to luck. When luck leaves you, you need to still be able to pound out a great script that people will want to buy. If you end up writing a stack of scripts while waiting for your luck to change, you will be prepared when it does.

HOW TO BE LUCKY!


She will hate me for mentioning this, but Bamboo Killer Emily quipped on a message board that she makes her own luck. What balls she has! And... haven’t I heard that line in a movie before? But even though I don’t think you can actually make luck, I do believe if you hide from luck it will never find you... and Emily goes out looking for luck. She meets luck halfway. I knew Emily only as a name on some messageboard... until she e-mailed me and asked if I needed any help at Screenwriting Expo. She was volunteering to be my assistant for the Expo. And I needed an assistant and said yes. That is a great example of getting yourself out there where luck can find you (though, as she learned, I can do nothing for anyone’s career - so ask a *producer* if they need an assistant at Expo). Most writers want to hide out in their offices and just write, I know I do. But that is a sure fire way *not* to meet that producer in the event’s hotel hallway and be able to run to the car for a script copy. You have to meet luck halfway, and that is part of the prepared part. If there is someplace where people who can help your career are going to be, you need to be there, too. I’ve got a Script Tip and there’s more on the Guerrilla Marketing CD about things like going to local Film Festivals to meet producers and directors and even people in your hometown who make films - that’s part of finding luck. Getting yourself out there.

Another part of finding luck is that prepared part. Write scripts. Rewrite those scripts until they are great. Have a selection of scripts. Have scripts that are marketable (in that they are in a popular genre and interesting and the kind of movies producers seem to be making these days). Have scripts with great star roles that actors will want to play. Know who people are. Have a plan for your career - so that when someone asks you what you want or what’s next for you, there’s an answer (not just a glassy eyed dull stare). Always be prepared.

Most people who seem lucky are really just *ready* for when luck finds them. It’s not so much that the door of luck opens for them, it’s that they are ready to step through that door when it does open. We can’t depend on the luck part or create the luck part - we *can* meet it halfway and we *can* be ready for luck to find us. Hiding doesn't help, so get yourself out there in the world! And have a script or two in the trunk of your car! All of that brings us back to the hard work and determination and all of that other stuff that we can control. The stuff we usually talk about.

So, do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Character In Conflict - Rocky doesn't start as the champ, does he?
Dinner: Pizza.
Pages: Nothing - called for jury duty and had to wait to be not chosen.
Bicycle: Yes - cycled to Burbank courthouse and back.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Fridays With Hitchcock: North By Northwest (1959)

Screenplay by Ernie Lehman.

My three favorite Hitchcock films are NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW and NORTH BY NORTHWEST... And it’s kind of strange to think that the same guy directed them - because they might all have suspense, but all have very different tones. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a comedy chase film with so much clever dialogue and so many farcical scenes that you might forget about the cool plot twists and large scale set pieces. Though movies like SAN FRANCISCO had big set pieces before this, I can’t think of any film with *as many* set pieces.



This is where all of our action films came from, and many say where the version of James Bond on screen came from. Screenplay by Ernie Lehman, who is an amazing short story writer, an amazing novelist, an amazing screenwriter and producer and won a bunch of Oscars. If you’ve read any of his stories, or seen the film SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, you know he travels in some nightmare version of the TV show MADMEN - where you have to sell your soul to sell a product. Here we get the lighter version of the Lehman lead - Cary Grant as an ad man who lies to everyone, has a liquid lunch often followed by afterwork cocktails, too many girlfriends and not a single real friend... except his mother. He’s charming... but all surface - he doesn’t want to know what’s underneath. Who really cares?

Nutshell: If there was ever a boy to cry wolf, it’s Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) - what does the O stand for? Nothing. In the opening minute and a half, we get a quick sketch of adman Roger - momma’s boy, playboy, liar, drinker... before a silly mistake in identity has him kidnaped by two armed thugs who think he’s a CIA Agent. They take him to this big country estate owned by Lester Townsend, where he meets the man of the house (James Mason at his best) who has just a minute before dinner guests arrive to decide whether he should kill Roger or not. Mason’s secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau) is thin and impeccably dressed and single - you do the math - and seems to enjoy causing people harm. When Roger keeps saying he’s *not* this CIA Agent George Kaplan, and even has a driver’s license to prove he’s Roger Thornhill, Leonard answers: “They make such good ones.” Roger - who tells lies for a living - can’t get anyone to believe him. Mason’s threats are so sophisticated and urbane that it takes you a moment to realize they *are* threats. Mason has Leonard kill Roger - with Bourbon and a sportscar, but Roger escapes death... and now can’t get anyone to believe that spies are trying to kill him. Guess what? Lester Townsend is a big wig at the United Nations - and doesn’t look anything like James Mason. No one in this film is who they claim to be - and nothing is as it seems. Mason is really an enemy spy named Van Damm... and Roger ends up framed for the real Townsend’s murder. There is no one to turn to - so Roger runs. He must find the real George Kaplan so that Van Damm will stop trying to kill Roger. By trains, planes, and automobiles Roger heads North by Northwest looking for the real Kaplan... and becoming an accidental spy and man of action in the process. The man who took nothing seriously grows up - and becomes a man of his word.

Hitch Appearance: Right up front, trying to catch a bus... and failing.

Sound Track: A great Bernard Herrmann score! Also, by the way, a great opening title sequence.

Great Scenes: They’re all great scenes. Seriously. The great thing about NORTH BY NORTHWEST is that you can take the smallest and most forgotten scene in the whole film - and it’s great! Here’s an example - a junk scene where Roger leaves Kaplan’s hotel and takes a taxi to the United Nations to ask Townsend what the hell is going on and why me? A pair of assassins are following him. But here we get a comedy version - Outside the hotel a Doorman has secured a cab for a Tourist Couple, when Roger bolts out, pushed them aside, gets in the cab and takes off. The Doorman hails a second cab for them, opens the door for them... and the Two Assassins bolt out of the hotel, push them aside, get in the cab and take off. The Doorman looks at the Tourist Couple, then cautiously looks for another cab. That’s just one of those scenes that gets the character from point A to point B!

Here’s another junk scene - Roger is locked in a hospital room and needs to get out - basically, another scene that will get him to a location where a “real scene” will take place. So Roger opens the hospital window, steps out onto a narrow ledge, gracefully walks along the ledge to the next hospital window, opens it and climbs into the room. A sleeping woman - not bad looking - yells: “Stop!” Then puts on her glasses and looks Roger over... then says: “Stop” in a much sexier voice. Now Roger has to get out before she tackles him! Another funny scene that is basically there to get Roger out of a locked room.

Every scene in the script - even these funny ones - move the story forward. This is a *relentless* script - it’s always moving. It is always a fast paced film - there are screenwriters who complain that movies today are designed for the short attention spans of the MTV generation (wait - how long has MTV been around? When the Rolling Stones sing about their generation - that’s a bunch of AARP members!) and these danged kids don’t want to take the time to build up to a story for a half an hour or so before the plot kicks in. NORTH BY NORTHWEST - made in 1959 - not only kicks into gear a minute and a half in, it doesn’t let up!


Bourbon And A Sports Car: Three martini lunch Roger is held down by the Two Assassins as Leonard forces him to drink a full bottle of Bourbon, then they put him behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible on a winding cliff-side road... and send him to his death. The great part about this is that it is smart on the side of the bad-guy spies - Roger’s death will look like a drunk driving accident. Problem is - Roger takes control of the car and manages to barely miss driving off the cliff... so the Two Assassins give chase in their car! Now we have a car chase with a very drunk driver. This adds an extra element to an already exciting car chase. One of the cool things about this scene is that Hitchcock gives up a driver’s POV through the windshield shot alternating with Roger behind the wheel so that *we* are driving the car on this dangerous winding road. Another thing he does is give us Roger’s *drunk POV* at times - with double vision (which road is the real one?) and blurry vision. Again - by putting us in Roger’s shoes and in the driver’s seat we feel like all of this is happening to *us*. If you’ve seen the car chase on the big screen - those POV shots as we head to a cliff or an oncoming car are scary! Any time you can find a way to turn the audience into the protagonist, you create an emotional scene.

Cops At Townsend’s: Roger manages to crash into a police car, which forces the Two Assassins to back off. But now Roger is in trouble with the law. When they ask him how much he’s had to drink, he raises his hands as if measuring a fish and says “This much”. By the way, the arresting officer is Corporal Emil Klinger - that’s where the M.A.S.H. character came from. He’s given a phone call, and calls his mother... “Mother, this is your son, Roger Thornhill” - as if she may have forgotten her son’s name. As an in joke only for my own amusement, when I call my mom I always say, “This is your son, Bill.” The next morning Roger tells the judge his story... and the judge sends a pair of Detectives with Roger and his Mother to the Townsend house... where Mrs. Townsend says Roger is “a little pink-eyed, but aren’t we all?” (a phrase I’ve taken up using the day after a party.) Then tells the Detectives that Roger was too drunk to drive... and the more Roger tries to prove he’s innocent, the more he just looks crazy. The sofa where they forced him to drink and spilled some booze on the cushions? Completely clean. The cabinet where Roger claims they got the bourbon - filled with books, not liquor bottles.

It’s important in a thriller script to remove the police and the authorities from the equation - so that the protagonist is alone against the world - and this scene does that. At *best* Roger looks like a drunk trying to get out of a police charge. At the end of the search of Townsend’s the Detectives apologize to Mrs. Townsend, and take Roger back to the police station. Roger’s mother tells him to just, “Pay the two dollars” - another phrase I often use to mean, quit arguing, you’ve lost and you’re looking silly.

The only way Roger can prevent himself from getting slightly murdered is to find the real George Kaplan... that is Roger's quest in the story.

Elevator with Killers: Roger manages to drag his Mother to the hotel where Kaplan is staying... and bribes her to get the room key. She won’t do it for $10 or $20, but $50 gets her cooperation. They search Kaplan’s room and discover they have Roger confused with a much shorter man... who has dandruff. But the strangest thing is that the Maid, the Valet and everyone else at the hotel has never actually *seen* Kaplan - they all think Roger is Kaplan. Then the phone rings - Van Damm’s Two Assassins! If Roger isn’t Kaplan, what is he doing in Kaplan’s room? And of course, the call came from the lobby phone - the Assassins are on the way up! Roger and his Mother race out of the hotel to the elevators... where the Assassins get off the up elevator and join Roger and his Mother going down.

Being trapped is one of the basic scenes in a thriller script - but Roger isn’t trapped *alone* with a pair of killers, his mom and a bunch of other people are on the elevator. Roger points out the Assassins to his Mother, who asks them: “You aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?” The question is so absurd, that people in the elevator start laughing... and soon *everyone* is laughing (including the Assassins) *except Roger*. He is the man alone - no one will believe him. The boy who cried wolf.


United Nations: Roger goes to the United Nations to find Townsend, has him paged... and this distinguished looking man introduces himself as Mr. Townsend, and Roger replies: “No you’re not.” And now Townsend must convince Roger he is who he is... more identity confusion! Roger still isn’t sure he believes him, and pulls out a picture of the guy who claimed to be Townsend (Van Damm) and shows it to Townsend - who gasps! Eyes open wide at the picture! Then he seems to faint! Roger grabs him to prevent him from falling, sees a big throwing knife in Townsend’s back and pulls it out... and that’s when everyone at the United Nations notices him - and people start snapping pictures. Roger sees one of the Assassins slip out of the room... leaving Roger, bloody knife in hand, trapped in the room! Roger escapes - and we get a great high overhead shot of Roger fleeing to a taxi - he’s like a chess piece or maybe an ant. Small, insignificant.

Seven Parking Tickets: Roger ends up at Grand Central Station - with just about everyone in the world looking for him. He tries to buy a ticket *North* and the ticket salesman pesters him with questions - it’s like everyone is against Roger. The ticket salesman gets Roger to wait for a moment... as he calls the police. Roger escapes, police chasing, and sneaks onto the train.

In the passageway, he runs into a pretty girl - Eve Kendall - flirts with her a bit... then the police enter the car. While Roger hides, Eve tells the policemen that she thinks he got off the train. After the police leave, Roger tells her he has seven parking tickets. After the train is in motion, Roger has no ticket so he has to keep moving... and goes to the dining car... where he’s seated at a table with Eve. He lies to her about who he is and where he’s from... but she stops him - she knows he’s Roger Thornhill and that he’s wanted for murder on the front page of *every* newspaper in the nation. The man who lies easily to women, can’t seem to lie to this woman. He has to be *honest* with her! Yikes! She flirts with him, says she has a bedroom car with plenty of room. Wow! Then she says he’d better hurry up. Roger thinks she's hot to trot... but the train just made an unexpected stop and a bunch of police just got on!

Eve’s Compartment: The police are doing a compartment-by-compartment search for Roger - and they enter Eve’s bedroom and ask if she’s seen him. Roger is hiding in a upper bed... and must be completely quiet and still while the police are in the bedroom. This is another one of those basic scenes in thrillers. Because Eve had dinner with Roger, they *really* question her. Take their time. She says they just shared a table, but don’t know each other. Eventually the police leave... and Roger can breathe again.

Now we come to the love scene - a kiss that manages to take them from wall to wall all the way around the car. Sure: “they kiss”, but how is *this* kiss different than any other kiss in any other movie? Here we have this romantic never-ending kiss where they use every surface of the room. A sexy, romantic idea for a kiss.

The next morning, when the conductor knocks on the door, Roger hides in the bathroom... and we get one of the big twists in the story. Afterwards the conductor walks down the passageway to a door, knocks on it, says the woman in compartment whatever (Eve) sent this message. A hand takes it, closes the door. The note says that she has Roger, what should she do with him. Reading the note? Van Damm and Leonard. Eve is a bad girl!

Redcap Spin: When the train pulls into the station, the police are waiting... so Roger disguises himself as a redcap, and we have another basic suspense scene, and we see an ocean of redcaps - dozens of them - one is Roger. A redcap in his underwear tells the police he was mugged for his uniform, so police start grabbing redcaps and spinning them around to look at their face. One-by-one the redcaps are spun around, and we know that any minute they will get Roger - and he’ll be caught. Suspense builds as there are fewer and fewer redcaps - because we know the next one will probably be Roger! It’s like a ticking clock - with redcaps instead of minutes passing.

When they spin the last redcap, it’s not Roger, because he is already in the train station men’s room changing and shaving... with Eve’s little woman’s razor. The big macho guy shaving at the sink next to him uses a straight razor - and gives Roger a look.

Crop Duster Scene: Eve tells Roger she’s gotten a message from Kaplan to meet him at Prairie Stop - take the bus, not a car. Roger gets off the bus in the middle of farmland for as far as the eye can see. Nothing but fields. Suspense is the *anticipation* of action - which means suspense can literally be nothing happening. This scene starts with Roger just standing in a deserted road, waiting for Kaplan to show up. Except we know there is no Kaplan, and that Eve (who sent him there) is a bad girl. That means this is a trap, but Roger doesn’t know it. That’s called “audience superiority” - the audience has information that the protagonist doesn’t have. We know Roger is in big trouble, he doesn’t. So while he stands there and an occasional cars zips by, nothing is happening... except we know any minute something *will* happen. And that creates suspense. In order to keep the suspense perking, Roger sees an old pick up truck driving toward him. Hey, that could be Kaplan! (Except we know it’s more likely someone who is going to kill Roger). The pick up truck stops, lets out a man in a suit, takes off. Now Roger is on the opposite side of the road from this man. And Roger waits for the best moment to cross the highway. Then asks if he’s Kaplan. The man answers “Can’t say that I am, ‘cause I’m not.” This guy talks stranger than Yoda! Then the guy sees a crop duster, starts a conversation about crop duster pilots... and how dangerous the job is, Many get killed. Wait... is that a threat? Just as the man’s bus is pulling up, the man notes that the crop duster is dusting where there ain’t no crops. Okay - the man was a potential threat, and the moment he is taken away, another threat is introduced... and the type of suspense changes.


We go from nothing happening, to the crop duster attacking Roger. Now our suspense is based on the anticipation of the crop duster killing Roger. Hitchcock alternates shots of the crop duster plane zooming at us, and shots of Roger running. This puts us in the protagonist’s shoes, just like the Bourbon and Sportscar scene. The cool thing here is that the shots of both the crop duster and Roger become shorter as the scene goes on, building up the pace and the anticipation/suspense. The shots of Roger also become closer - as if the plane is getting closer. When Roger hides in a cornfield, the crop duster sprays the corn - forcing Roger out into the open again. Eventually the plane sprays machinegun fire - and Roger is running for his life.

There’s a great little bit of simple visual storytelling at the end of this scene. Roger steals a farmer’s pick up truck with a refrigerator in the back... and we cut to the city at night where a policeman is writing a ticket on a completely out of place pick up truck with a refrigerator in back. This not only tells us Roger is in the city... but it’s a funny way to give us this information.

Eve’s Hotel Room: Roger realizes Eve sent him to his death, and goes to confront her. I use a clip from this scene in my 2 day class to illustrate how you can show complex emotions through the actions of the characters. When Eve goes to hug Roger, his hands tun to fists and he does not touch her. Everything Roger *says* in this scene has a double meaning: “Surprised to see me?” “There’s just no getting rid of me.” But it is all said in a friendly manner - so we need the actions to show Roger’s anger.

While Roger is in the shower, Eve leaves... but Roger wasn’t really in the shower. To link this scene to the next, they use a device: Roger rubs a pencil over the pad of paper next to the phone in the hotel room... exposing an address. Then we see the address on the outside of the auction house.

Auction: This is the first scene with Roger and Van Damm and Eve - our little romantic triangle. And that is how the scene is played - as a romantic triangle where the losing party gets killed. Because this is a scene where the characters are in public and can’t kill each other with guns or knives, they try to off each other with words. Roger and Van Damm (and sometimes Leonard) dig into each other with the most painful words they can find - and this becomes a battle of the wits. What’s cool is the other person in the room - the studio censor - who forces them to find clever ways to hit below the belt. When Eve says Roger followed her from the Hotel, Van Damm asks if he was in her room, and Roger replies that *everyone* has been in her room. Later Roger tells Van Damm that Eve does great work - she puts her whole body into it.

As they verbally spar, with Eve in the middle, Leonard is bidding on a piece of art. They outbid everyone else - they *must* have this little statue. Once they get it, Van Damm and Eve leave... And the two Assassins and Leonard block all of the exits. No way out. Here’s the kind of thing that separates good scenes from average ones - finding the completely different way to resolve the problem. The one we have never seen. As screenwriters we always want to find the unusual solution to the problem. Here we have Roger trapped - assassins at every door. How does he get out of it? He bids on the piece of art being offered... but bids weird. Now he has called attention to himself, and the assassins can’t really do anything to him. He’s in public. But Roger keeps bidding, and eventually ruins the auction to the point that the auction house calls the police. When the police arrive, Roger *punches* one of them. That guarantees that instead of ticketing him or warning him, they will have to take Roger to the police station and put him in a cell... which will make it close to impossible for the assassins to get him. Finding the usual solution makes the scene different and interesting and exciting... oh, and *funny*, since Roger gets to act like a crazy guy in the middle of a very dignified setting.

What Is A MacGuffin? The little pre-Columbian statue that Van Damm was so insistent to buy at the auction is one of the film’s two MacGuffins (the other is George Kaplan). When asked what a MacGuffin was, Hitchcock said it was a device for capturing the indigenous lions in the Scottish Highland... but there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands... hence, no such thing as a MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin is the physical device that drives the story - the thing that everyone is after. The Maltese Falcon is probably the most famous one. In FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE everyone wants to get their hands on the Russian Lecter coding machine. Of course, the Lost Ark is a MacGuffin. Rare coins, rare books, murder weapons, plans to the Death Star, all kinds of things that both good guys and bad guys must own. In THE LADY VANISHES the MacGuffin is a *tune* that is really a code that Mrs. Froy has memorized - turning her brain into the MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin drives the story - where would THE MALTESE FALCON be without The Maltese Falcon? It is the most important element in the story... but Hitchcock noted that it may be the thing that drives the story, but what it is doesn’t matter very much. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we have this pre-Columbian statue, and inside is a roll of microfilm. Van Damm is smuggling this microfilm out of the USA - and delivering it to the Soviets... and the CIA must stop this from happening and recover that microfilm... and Roger ends up being the guy in the middle. So the fate of the free world rests on who ends up with the statue and the microfilm that is inside it by the end of the movie. This film is all about that microfilm! It’s what Van Damm has secretly been up to since the very first frame. It's why he has been trying to kill George Kaplan... the only man who can get Roger off the hook. So the microfilm is *really* why they are trying to kill Roger... and Roger’s only hope of survival after the auction scene is to get that microfilm!

But here’s the question: what’s on the microfilm? Guess what? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we will lose the Cold War if Van Damm delivers the microfilm to the enemy. And that’s why the MacGuffin is both the most important element in the story (it drives the story, and who ends up with it is what the story is *about*), but also unimportant (as long as we know people will kill for it, who cares what it really is?). The scene where the Professor tells Roger what it’s all about? Takes place on the tarmac of an airport (Northwest Airlines) and you can’t hear a thing that is said because a plane is taking off. We never find out what is on the microfim.

And George Kaplan, the MacGuffin that Roger is chasing, doesn't exist... but more on that in a moment.

Now, I think you can still have the MacGuffin be the thing that drives the story and yet not really care what’s on the microfilm - but we live in a post CSI world where people like to know the details. Today, they would want to know what’s on that danged microfilm. And the cool thing about a MacGuffin is that it makes a dandy high concept substitute. If the *MacGuffin* is some high concept device, then you can have a standard non-high con thriller (or action or whatever) movie. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a non-high con story... but the Ark can level mountains, and whoever controls it will win the war. Is that *lightning* shooting out of the Ark? So, these days, I would make the MacGuffin *something* rather than just a device - because it adds production value. I have a half finished novel from decades ago about good guy spies and bad guy spies all trying to get their hands on this lost microfilm. Could have been anything, but I decided it was the plans for the “freon bomb” that flash freezes anything in a 5 mile radius. Opening chapter had a test on a tropical island... that froze chimpanzees so that they shattered when you touched them. To me, that raises the stakes and makes the story more interesting. Better than “just microfilm”.

But the whole story is about that MacGuffin. You can’t abandon it midway, or just decide it’s not important. All of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is about getting that Ark, all of THE MALTESE FALCON is about getting the black bird, and by the time we find out what has been driving NORTH BY NORTHWEST, it’s all about the microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue and George Kaplan.

Mt. Rushmore Restaurant: After the Professor (I’m sure some relation to the Video Professor) tells Roger that the fate of the free world rests on that microfilm of, well, whatever’s on it, and that George Kaplan doesn't exist - he's a decoy to cover the tracks of the *real* CIA Agent... he also reveals another mistaken identity and twist - Eve isn’t bad girl at all, *she’s* the deep cover CIA agent... and Roger has given Van Damm reason to mistrust her. No one in this film is who they seem to be! So they hop a plane to Rapid City where Van Damm has a house near Mount Rushmore to try and set things straight.

Roger meets with Van Damm and Leonard... and Eve at the restaurant overlooking Mount Rushmore. This scene could have taken place anywhere - so why not this really cool location? NORTH BY NORTHWEST isn’t just a story that moves in that direction, it’s also a travelogue movie, where every interesting location anywhere near that route is a story stop. We are seeing America in this film. Mount Rushmore in a great background to a scene.

In the restaurant, Roger makes a deal - he will allow Van Damm to take the statue (and microfilm) to the Soviets in exchange for... Eve. She betrayed him, and he’s going to make her suffer. Van Damm sees that Eve is *not* working with Roger and the CIA, and they are no longer suspicious of her. Everything is back on track, right? Except Eve pulls out a gun and shoots Roger - again and again! Roger foes down, dead. Leonard and Van Damm leave the restaurant and escape in their car. Eve gets in her own car and races away. Leaving Roger dead on the floor. This is our protagonist. Played by a huge star, Cary Grant. And they kill him about three quarters of the way through the film! His body is put in the back of an ambulance and taken away...

Woods Goodbye: The ambulance is driven into the woods, where it stops. Trees everywhere. Beautiful. Then Eve’s car pulls up and stops. And Roger hops out of the back of the ambulance. Eve’s gun was filled with blanks.

The Professor tells Roger he only has a minute... and Roger and Eve slowly walk toward each other - meeting in the middle of the woods. This is the first time Roger has meet with the real Eve - neither is playing a role. And it’s a great love scene - because both are completely without defenses. They have their first real kiss, a small conversation... then she says she has to get back. Roger thinks this whole fake murder has been to pull her out of danger... but it has really been to make her a fugitive from justice so that Van Damm will have to take her out of the country with him when he delivers the MacGuffin... so that she can meet and infiltrate the Soviet side of the operation. Roger doesn’t want her to go - he loves her. When he tries to stop her, he gets KOed by a Park Ranger and Eve drives off to Van Damm’s house.

Van Damm’s House: Now we get that scene where Roger escapes the hospital... and goes to Van Damm’s house. Again - an amazing house instead of just some house. This place is on stilts and really cool looking. Roger climbs the stilts, ending up just under the living room window... where he overhears Leonard and Van Damm talking about the plane that will land soon to take them away... and Leonard tells Van Damm that there’s a problem with Eve.

And Leonard aims a gun at Van Damm.
And Fires.
And Van Damm isn’t hit.
It’s Eve’s gun - filled with blanks.
Now, there could have just been a scene where Leonard tells Van Damm that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. But that is the least exciting way to get that information across. Here we get the *most exciting* method to reveal that Eve’s gun was filled with blanks. The most dramatic. The most inciting - because Van Damm *punches* Leonard in the face afterwards. Always look for the best way to reveal information - if there is a dull way, or even a traditional way - look for some other method. Find the most exciting way - the most unusual and different way.

Van Damm tells Leonard the best way to deal with Eve is from a great height - over water. They are going to throw her out of the plane! Roger overhears this, climbs to a section under Eve’s window and throws rocks at her window. What happens next? When she *finally* looks out the window, Roger is forced to hide from Van Damm and Leonard... and she doesn’t see him! Instead of things going according to plan - the opposite happens. No easy scenes, here. Roger climbs up to her room... just as she’s left her room and gone downstairs! Again - nothing happens the easy way.

So Roger is upstairs, hiding on the balcony, and Eve is downstairs sitting on the sofa in the same room as Van Damm and Leonard. How does he stop her from going with them? How does he tell her they know she’s a CIA agent?

We get a great bit of visual storytelling. On the train, she sees his monogrammed handkerchief and asks what the O stands for, and he explains “nothing”. He is ROT. Roger is looking for something to signal her with, pulls out his handkerchief, sees ROT - she knows him by those initials - and pulls out a monogrammed matchbook, jots a note inside, and throws it from the balcony to the ashtray on the table directly in front of Eve while Leonard and Van Damm are looking out the window as the plane lands. The matchbook misses the ash tray. It misses the table. It hits the floor halfway to Leonard’s feet. Nothing easy here... and it gets worse. The matchbook is a “focus object” - an object that creates suspense. Leonard turns and walks toward Eve, sees the matchbook, picks it up! Suspense - because we know if he opens the matchbook and reads the message, Eve is dead. We are focused on that matchbook... will he open it? Examine it? Realize that ROT stands for Roger O Thornhill? But here’s the thing - he thinks Roger is George Kaplan... so ROT means nothing to him. So he places the matchbook in the ashtray in front of Eve. But Eve knows ROT - and now must *not* look at the matchbook while Leonard is talking to her. When he turns away, she grabs the matchbook, reads the message... but the plane has landed, and Van Damm and Leonard hustle her out of the house so that they can leave... and they can throw her out of the plane later.

When they leave the house, Roger runs downstairs to rescue her... but a burley maid aims a gun at him and tells him to freeze. Guess which gun it is? The one filled with blanks! The gun-filled-with-blanks gets used three times in this story - and not once is it contrived or illogical.

Hanging From Lincoln’s Nose: Which brings us to Roger and Eve and the MacGuffin trying to escape by climbing down the face of Mount Rushmore while Leonard and the Two Assassins give chase. Whenever you can *combine* threats, you increase the excitement. Mount Rushmore is not only the coolest place for a chase scene, it’s easy to fall from - making it a chase at a very dangerous location (two ways to die!). In here somewhere Roger refers to the pre-Columbian statue as “the pumpkin” - which is a reference to the Pumpkin Papers from the 1948 HUAC investigation into communist spies in the USA - run by some guy named Richard Nixon who would eventually become President. They found microfilm in a hollowed out pumpkin in a farm in the midwest. America’s heartland - overrun by commies!


The big flaw in NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Roger doesn’t resolve the conflict! The Professor shows up with a sharp shooter and arrests Van Damm and shoots Leonard seconds before he would have killed Roger and Eve. William Goldman uses this scene as an example of wrapping up the plot and all of the subplots in about 30 seconds. Though it would be better if Roger had resolved the conflict, I cut the film some slack because of the very last shot: Roger and Eve take the train on their honeymoon, and after they get into bed together... the train goes into a tunnel.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a fun film - comedy, thrills, suspense, romance... but still some real emotions. If there was ever a film that opened the door for the biog summer blockbusters we have today, this is it.

- Bill

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