Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Thing Prequel And Suspense

From 2011...

I once saw John Carpenter in Dupar's Diner in Studio City eating breakfast. He'd have a forkful of eggs, then amble outside and have a smoke, then come back in for another forkful of eggs. When he walked past me, I whistled the theme to ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. He either didn't notice, or purposely ignored me. My guess is the latter. But even after he has said terrible things about the profession of screenwriting, and given us some recent stinkers – I am still a big fan.

Carpenter movies are well-crafted, goofy, fun. To me they are meatloaf and mashed potatoes – comfort food. You won't find them on the menu at some snooty restaurant, and gourmet chefs will look down their noses... but it tastes great! Carpenter is never going to win an Oscar, but 50 years from now some of his films will be classics in the same way his idol Howard Hawks' films used to be popcorn and are now masterpieces. Some of his films are some form of classics *now*. Can we talk about modern horror films without bringing up HALLOWEEN? And then there is that great remake he did of a film Howard Hawks may have secretly directed, THE THING.

You can tell THE THING is considered a classic by the amount of anger over the remake-prequel from the moment it was announced. I thought much of this was amusing, in the same way I find the current outrage over the new remake of SCARFACE to be amusing – um, remaking a remake isn't exactly sacrilege. Hey, this could be THE THING for a new generation! But the weird thing about the “prequel” was that it would be the story of the Norwegians from the first couple of minutes of the Carpenter version... except Carpenter's version has video of the Norwegians that is either footage from the Hawks' version or a recreation... making the *Hawks* version the prequel. Um, are they remaking the Hawks version?

Just before the new prequel came out, I posted a scene from the Hawks Version here that was also in the Carpenter Version as the video footage. That was an iconic scene that, um, found its way into one of my scripts (in a completely different situation). In the Hawks Version the scientists circle the flying saucer in the ice with arms stretched to get an idea of the size of the object, in my script a group of people – one of whom may be a werewolf – join hands in a circle and wait for the moon to come up (while one sings a bastardized song from ANNIE). The thing about THE THING is that you have *two* great previous versions you have to match in quality. That's tough.


The problem with remakes is that people will compare them to the original – but the *solution* is that the original shows you the path to doing it right. Though you want it to be “the same but different” that doesn't mean you can just do a substitution thing like they did with HANGOVER 2 – because one of the things that make films work is their *originality*. Both ALIEN and ALIENS are spooky monsters in a dark house movies – and work in similar ways: isolating a member from the group in a dark place where we know that monsters lurk. But each tackles the basic idea from a different direction, and become different films. No “search and replace” involved in the screenplays. They understood that *originality* is one of the elements that made the first film popular, so they did something original and different for the sequel. Not a carbon copy – but still a member of the family.

And the two previous versions of THE THING were different and yet the same. The Hawks Version (directed by Christian Nyby) was a straight monster attack movie - and it was creepy as hell. A group of people living in isolation – no escape - with that carrot dude *somewhere* in the building. Not blasting through walls and killing people. Mostly hiding in the shadows. Suspense and dread were created by people walking through the Air Force Station hallways knowing that it was... somewhere. When the monster *does* attack – they are shock attacks where the creature is exposed for a couple of minutes before disappearing back into the shadows. I'm sure that one of the reason the “carrot-monster” played by James Arness (Matt Dillon from GUNSMOKE) is only seen briefly is that make up effects weren't that great at the time, so keeping the monster in the shadows was a great way to keep it from looking stupid. But as we know from JAWS, that's also a great way to amp up the dread-factor. So our shrinking group of survivors – civilians and scientists and Air Force guys – must learn to work together to fight the monster and survive. I'm sure this was a Cold War anti-Commie movie about coming together for the common good (ironic, huh?).

The Carpenter Version is is a paranoid horror story about the difficulty in trusting people these days. Going back to the original story by John Campbell, screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt's son – writer of THE BAD NEWS BEARS... and *there's* a double bill) has a monster that basically takes over the bodies of others... so that trusted friend may actually be the monster in disguise. We have the same snow-bound lab full of scientists (though I think they changed poles) and the same dark hallways and the same possibility for a monster to spring from the darkness, but the difference is that the monster may also be that guy sitting next to you at dinner. This is a core change that makes the film all about trust. And I think that is why the Carpenter Version is still will us all of these years later. The film was not a theatrical success, but had a long shelf life on video... because it's actually about something. Sure, it's got cutting edge for the time special effects that crank it to 11 on the gross-out meter, and some snappy dialogue... but the theme of *trust* is something we can relate to even today. Every scene in the film ends up being about *trust* - and all of those great moments are trust related: the wire in the blood is all about “who can we trust”?

Though the Rob Bottin special effects were cutting edge then (and look amazing now – better than much of the CGI stuff in the prequel) they were still smart enough to keep the monster mostly off screen and create *mystery* around it. Yeah, we got to get a good long look at the spider-head, but when the thing is in the dog cage it's mostly in the shadows. Familiarity breeds contempt – and that extends to monsters in monster movies. There are some great monster set-pieces where we see the monster, but like the Hawks Version the creature is never on screen long enough to wear out its welcome... or just become a boring effect. We fear the unknown – and the minute we “know” the monster too well, we can not fear it.

Which brings us to the “prequel”. I wanted to like it, because the first two versions are great and it would be swell if the third was great in its own way. The ALIEN series dropped the ball on the third film and never really recovered. Can THE THING have a great third entry? I really like Mary Elizabeth Winstead from SCOTT PILGRIM (and if you have not seen that one – it's a blast) even without blue hair... but she doesn't look the least bit Norwegian. And that angry guy from BOURNE IDENTITY who played Robert Mugabe doesn't look Norwegian, either. This film *is* about Norwegians, right?


One of the things that I anticipated would be fun in this film would be the plants that all pay off in that scene in the Carpenter Version where MacReady and Blair visit the Norwegian camp. One of the things that made the 3rd STAR WARS prequel barely tolerable were the things leading up to Anakin becoming Darth Vader. So I was waiting to see which character was *defined* by using an old fashioned straight razor to shave with. That's unusual, so it's character related... but no razor is used in the film until their tacked-on ending. It's almost as if it became a “prequel” in post production. Talk about missed opportunities! A straight razor is such a cool thing for a character to use, that it would have added to the film even if it wasn't part of that tacked on ending. One of the great things about the Carpenter Version is that all of the characters – and it's a large cast – are distinctive and different. Each has an arc, too. I love how Gary shoots the Norwegian in that opening scene and takes flack from the others for *wanting* to use his gun, but the character gets this great moment of regret and sadness. He has taken a man's life. And if we take Gary or any of the other characters in the story and just follow them – they have their own story and their own journey in the film. In the “prequel” the characters are thin and not well defined... and none of them uses a straight razor.

By the way – if the fear was that showing one of the characters using the straight razor would be a dead giveaway that they'd be that frozen suicide dude at the end, the solution is to have another character *hate* that straight razor, think it's dangerous and doesn't want to be in the bathroom while the guy is shaving with it... and *that's* the character who uses the straight razor to kill themselves at the end. Or some fake-out version. But by *not* establishing that there even *is* a straight razor, that end just seems tacked on fake and makes me want to kill the filmmakers. But not with a straight razor. A ripe tomato.

The funny thing about the “prequel” is that it ends up being a remake of the Hawks Version, kind of... and yet also a "search and replace" of Carpenter's version. It's a monster attack movie in a snowbound location. But unlike the Hawks version – the monster is always in full light and they *dwell* on it! And it seems like every scene from the Carpenter Version gets a dopey version here: they did a "search and replace" on the wire in the blood scene and gave us a fillings in the mouth scene. Huh?

My main complaint with the prequel is that it's hollow - a movie about nothing. Not about a group of different people banding together to fight a common enemy like the Hawks Version (Cold War stuff) nor about the difficulty of trusting people in the modern world (Carpenter Version). It's just a monster attacking people. And it has no logic - if the creature doesn't want to be discovered why is it blasting out of places and killing people? And if it just wants to blast out and kill people, why doesn't it just do that (and the movie will be over in 10 minutes)? The story makes no sense at all. There is a point in the film where the monster has *escaped* - but then comes back just to kill some more people. It's one of those movies where the monster's goal seems to be: kill everyone, but kill the cute girl last.

The cute non-Norwegian girl.


The Hawks Version had a female in the cast, the Carpenter Version was all testosterone – and used that as an element. The “prequel” has a female lead and another female character – and this might have been an interesting thing to make the film *about*. To give it a story between monster attacks. As silly as it sounds, rom-com THING would have been a good angle for this film: not the com part, but use romantic part - and have these isolated people hook up because they are lonely... "Trust in a relationship's a tough thing to come by these days." We all seem to live in some form of isolation these days – we used to interact with each other in person, but instead of sitting in Residuals Bar listening to me talk about THE THING you are reading this online and I am writing it online. We do more and more things *alone* - and we may even date people who we previously knew *from online*. So, take an isolated group of people who are stuck in the same building for months, maybe years... and they become more lonely and more likely to hook up and the dating pool is all shallow-end.

I can tell you from experience that a film crew – working together for 12 hour days and maybe staying at the same Holiday Inn on location will sprout a bunch of set romances. And that leads to set break ups and no shortage of awkward situations where people who just broke up badly must be inches away from each other. That's some great drama to happen between monster attacks – and can become part of the story when your monster assimilates the bodies and memories of its victims. Oh, and monster-wise: if I'm going to have a scene where two guys' heads meld together, one of those guys is going to be set up hitting on the other earlier in the film... and have the other guy turn him down flat and be creeped out having to work with him for the rest of their time in the research center. Put a bunch of guys in an isolated snow bound place together and a certain amount of homophobia will bubble to the surface – and we can explore that in the story. They could have made the monster elements about the characters and the story instead of just a series of attacks in full light.

So the “prequel” becomes nothing more than a crappo monster movie with a tacked on ending that turns it into a prequel. But not only is the version of the script that ended up on film lacking, the direction kills any suspense and dread and scares that might have existed even after they keep showing the monster for expended periods in full light. This director has no idea what he is doing and needs to be kicked out of Hollywood as soon as possible – or forced to watch good movies until he can figure out *what makes them good*.


Okay - someone is walking through dark, spooky room... what is it we (audience) want to see? The person *walking* or what might be skittering in that shadow in front of them? It's all about POV - what is important isn't the person walking, it's *what they see* (or think they see). Only an idiot director would keep the camera on the girl with the flashlight and not show us what the girl *sees* with that flashlight! If you look at 1955s DIABOLIQUE's end - there's more screen time spent on what Vera Clouzot is looking at than on hottie Vera Clouzot looking. The long hallway, the sliver of light coming from the door - jeeze - is her dead husband in there *typing*? The key to creating suspense is to put the audience in the protagonist's shoes – and we can't be in their shoes and be looking at the shoes. The most important shots are *not* the star, but what the star is looking at. The problem with THE THING prequel is that we **never** see what she is seeing – we only see her looking. No suspense or dread in that at all. That DIABOLIQUE scene works – not because we see *the star*, but because we see *what the star sees* - and by alternating those shots we feel like we are in her shoes looking through the shadows. Wait... I can describe that scene from DIABOLIQUE, but why not just show it to you and talk about it afterwords?


The story until now: Vera Clouzot is a shy (but hot) school teacher who has inherited this huge old private school. She has also inherited a heart condition, and could drop dead at any time. She's frail. Isn't supposed to get excited. And discovers that her slimy husband has found excitement outside of their marriage... with another teacher at the school played by the sultry Simone Signoret. Now usually these two would be fighting each other, but did I mention the husband is slimy? What happens is both women turn against the husband, and decide to kill him. Over a holiday break, Signoret lures him to her house where the two women drug his wine and drown him in the bathtub, and then take his corpse back to the school in a huge wicker basket and throw his corpse in the school's swimming pool that is closed for he season. A drowning accident. But the body is never discovered, and when they find an excuse to drain the pool... no corpse. WTF? The two women panic – what could have happened to his body? Did animals drag it away? If so, how can they prove that he's dead?

Which brings us to the scene....

Okay, let's take a look at how it works.

1) She's sleeping and a sound wakes her up... Footsteps climbing the stairs - then light from across the courtyard.

2) She looks out her window and there is a light on in her husband's office. Notice that she looks out the window, then we see out the window (and from her point of view – in Hitchcock/Truffaut they talk about the remake of THE 39 STEPS and how instead of using Hannay's POV looking at the two men watching on the street, they have a non-POV eye-level shot of the two men, which doesn't come from anywhere and takes us *out* of the protagonist's shoes, undercutting our identification – when people say “well, maybe the editor decided to do that”, the problem is that the editor can only work with the shots the director gives her... and if the director doesn't have a plan for the sequence and just shoots coverage, you end up with a bunch of junk shots that do not work). We see what Vera sees, then back to Vera looking, as she decides to investigate.

3) She opens the door and looks down the hallway... and WE see down the hallway from her POV. She walks down the hallway. She hears footsteps... and we see someone walking – this is a break in POV, and I think it doesn't work well. It splits us from knowing only what Vera knows and also having the additional knowledge that there is a man walking in the hallway. In the film there is a nosy cop – and I'm sure this was put here to suspect the nosy cop of setting her up... but *that* undercuts the scene. I think these shots are stumbles... but there are only a couple of them, and the rest of the scene just kicks ass.

4) She enters the next hallway. Looks down the long hallway... and WE see down the hallway from OVER HER SHOULDER at a faint light at the end of the hall (this is a great moving shot). An Over The Shoulder Shot is a great combo of POV *and* Star – even though it's usually just the star's back. Sometimes there's enough of the side of their face that it's really the best of both shots. Here the shot continues to see a door open *behind her* and someone step out. The cop?

5) The sound of the typewriter pounding away in the office. How is that possible? She walks down the long hallway, and this is the core of the scene. We cut back and forth between her cautiously walking to her husband's office and a POV shot of her getting closer to the office door... the light slicing from under it. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST we get shots of Cary Grant running and looking over his shoulder alternating with the zooming crop duster heading right at him. One of the great things in that sequence is the *pacing* - the length of the shots (in frames) becomes shorter with each shot – making the scene more and more frantic as it goes on. This was a common suspense editing technique in the days of Steinbeck Film Editors where actual physical frames of film were part of cutting. You counted frames and created a rhythm... or created an anti-rhythm to throw the audience off. Now, with editing on digital media I'm not sure editors even think in terms of frames anymore. The technique of shaving a frame or three with each shot to build tension may be lost.

6) When Vera gets to the end of the hall, the office door slowly opens sending a slice of light towards her – as if it's searching for her... and finds her!

7) She cautiously enters the office – and again we get shots of her alternating with her POV of inside the office – this puts us in her shoes and builds suspense up the wazoo. She sees the typewriter on the desk with a piece of paper in it – and that is two shots. She moves to the typewriter (shots of her, POV shots of the dark spooky room), pulls out the paper, and reads it – and we get a POV shot of the paper so that *we* can also read it. Her husband's name over and over again.

8) Footsteps coming from the darkness in her husband's room. She runs like hell.

9) Shots of her running all the way back to her bedroom - her running away, her running towards, her feet running. This is all about panic.

10) In her bathroom, she splashes water on her face... sees something and clutches her heart – this is a great tease shot, because we have not yet seen what she sees... THEN we get her POV shot of her dead husband's corpse in the bathtub. How did he get there? Who put him there? The nosy cop?

11) She backs up, looks... Her POV of her husband rising up!

And that's how you create a suspense scene on film. It's not just shots of cute Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding a flashlight walking from room to room – it's WHAT SHE SEES. That flashlight's pale beam searching the shadows and things skittering in the darkness.

I thought THE THING “prequel” was a let down on many levels, but just as a monster attack movie, the *director* screwed up by not giving us those POV shots and only shooting the star wandering around with a flashlight. Is that because they think it is all about the star? Or because they are *not* thinking about the audience and how to create emotions within the audience? Alternating shots of the character and shots of what the character sees goes back to the pioneers of cinema – they knew how to do this stuff... how come directors today don't seem to know it?

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Research For Story - and BLUE CRUSH... some warm weather background on a chilly day!
Dinner: China Wall in Concord, CA - all you can eat Chinese food.
Pages: Well, I finished revising the Action Book... and today I wrote this blog entry, and I *still* plan to write a new spec by the end of the year in warp drive mode!
Bicycle: No... but a long walk.

Movies: THE MUPPET MOVIE - I laughed, I cried. But, then, I love The Muppets. And the Muppets are back - in a great fun film filled with big Hollywood musical numbers. It's the most old fashioned musical made in the past couple of decades. I loved it - but that made me wonder who the audience for this nostalgic flick about smart-ass puppets is: It seems to be made for fans of the 70s TV show and the 1979 movie... and we are, um, old people. Will kids like this film? That's actually part of the plot - are the Muppets *relevant* in 2011? Well, whether they are or not - they are still entertaining. There's a huge musical number with thousands of dancers on Hollywood Blvd, a great song about being a man or a muppet than opened my tear ducts, and some other great stuff. At one point I thought we were going to go full-on MEET THE FEEBLES when they round up the old gang, but they kinda pulled that punch. A nice return for these furry friends, but I think the script needed another pass - especially in the Kermie-Piggy subplot. Also - considering all of the guest stars from the past, why pick these people? James Carville?

Movies: DESCENDANTS - Screw Sean Penn, George Clooney is our greatest living actor. Clooney manages to be a *real* movie star, plus do films like this that are small and interesting and dramatic... and the dude can act. There are scenes in this film that require a bunch of emotions playing behind his smile - and he does an amazing job of showing you each layer of emotion. The story: Clooney is a Hawaiian businessman whose wife gets hurt in an accident and is not expected to live - so this absent father must now take care of his two daughters while he tracks down all of his wife's friends and family to break the news that she's got about a week of life left. It's a sad movie, and an angry one. Here's a great screenwriting lesson: the story may sound like a small drama, but it has stakes up the wazoo. Clooney is the most hated man in Hawaii - his family owns a huge chunk of the island, and they may sell it to turn it into condos and crap. That's the big business deal that he's working on. And his family - "the cousins" - have formed groups and each has a developer to sell to - and Clooney is the man in the middle getting beat up on all sides... and that's before his wife gets in the accident and has about a week to live. His two daughters? Not some sweet sitcom kids - one is a recovering drug addict in a boarding school for problem kids, and his youngest (aged 10) is about to be expelled from school for acting out big time. She's a hellion. He has no idea what to do with these girls. So instead of some small quiet drama - he's in the eye of a tornado of crap... and his wife will be dead in a week. High stakes. Not some little story about a dying wife - the fate of Hawaii hangs in the balance, here. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the wife has/had a HUGE secret that is uncovered along the way. One of the things I liked about the film was how every character gets a great moment - there's this idiot stoner that the teen drug addict daughter *brings with them* as they go to tell friends and family of the wife to go to the hospital and say goodbye *now* because she'll be dead in a week. This dofus is great comic relief - when scenes get tense he says something stupid (and in one scene someone has a negative reaction to that) - but he also gets a great scene later in the film where you understand him. The two actresses playing the girls are both great. This is not a great film - but it's a very good one. And all of the cast does a great job - especially Clooney, who manages to use his charm in dark scenes where I think any other actor would have taken it too far. He gives a great layered performance.

- Bill




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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Trailer Tuesday: The Haunting (1963)

"It was an evil house from the beginning - a house that was born bad."

I first saw this film in grade school on a rainy day when instead of going out to play we went to the multi-purpose room for a movie... and instead of just getting wet outside, all of us got scared to death and probably scarred for life. This film scares me *now*.

THE HAUNTING doesn't have any blood at all... yet it has regular scares throughout the film - and lots of DIRECT CONFLICT between the source of the scares and the protagonists. This is tricky, because THE HAUNTING is about ghosts and has no special effects - no guys in sheets, no double exposure FXs, nothing we can *see*.

The biggest mistake of the remake was turning it into a CGI fest... we fear the unknown, when we see a bunch of FX, it isn't unknown anymore.

"'Unknown.' That's the key word. 'Unknown.' When we become involved in a supernatural event, we're scared out of our wits just because it's unknown. The night cry of a child. A face on the wall. Knockings, bangings. What's there to be afraid of? You weren't threatened. It was harmless, like a joke that doesn't come out."

Though we can't see the ghosts in the original, we CAN see what they do. The original version of THE HAUNTING has five characters and only one of them dies - at the very end. But they are constantly in peril throughout the film, and often in conflict with each other. Even though nobody dies for 99% of the film's running time, there are a bunch of big scary scenes - it's as much fun to have a character *almost* killed as it is to have them killed.

"Haven't you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away and then you just... catch something out of the corner of your eye?"

It's a haunted house story about a team of ghostbusters who are going to "cleanse" a very haunted house. Richard Johnson is the professor leading the expedition into the world's most haunted house. Claire Bloom and Julie
Harris are two different kinds of psychics, Rusty Tamblin (from my INVISIBLE MOM movie) represents the owner of the house and the actress playing Johnson's wife (can't remember her name). The scares are (brilliantly directed) scenes with ghosts pounding on the walls or doors samming on their own or people almost being swept off balconies by the wind or spiral staircases becoming untethered and almost falling over or people having to walk down long hallways in the dark while wind or shadows chase them. The ghosts are constantly chasing our heroes! The ghosts are looking for fresh blood - and our five ghostbusters are in peril from the moment they enter that house. The ghosts don't just call on the phone and breathe heavy, they actively try to kill every member of the team!

"Look, I know the supernatural is something that isn't supposed to happen, but it does happen."

Though the most famous scary scene is probably that spiral staircase sequence, my favorite couple of minutes of absolute terror is a scene where ghosts pounding on the door to Harris and Bloom's bedroom actually begin to push the door inwards - bending it to the breaking point! The door just keeps bending inwards. Will the ghosts break through the door to get our team of psychics? This scene goes on so long you almost pass out from holding your breath in fear! And that door bows so far inwards you know it will break any minute! No blood (but the scene will drain the blood from *you*!) but scary as hell! This is the kind of "old school horror" audiences
are looking for - direct conflict between the terrifying and the protagonists... and when a movie like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (1,2,3) comes along, the reason why it's a success is that it builds that sense of dread that gets us on a primal level...

Real suspense based on a real threat.

"When people believed the earth was flat, the idea of a round world scared them silly. Then they found out how the round world works. It's the same with the world of the supernatural. Until we know how it works, we'll continue to carry around this unnecessary burden of fear."

The best part about the original HAUNTING is that between these great bloodless scare scenes, you get to "catch your breath" with scenes of mentally unbalanced romance as Julie Harris interprets everything that Richard Johnson does as proof that he's secretly in love with her. The guy's married and doesn't even flirt with her - but she's so delusional that she's sure it's love. This is almost as creepy as the ghost attacks (just in a different way). So the "valleys" in the ghost story are "peaks" in the twisted romance story (kind of Harris's character coming of age late in life - she's been sheltered since that incident where stones rained on the family home when she was a kid... and has never been on her own or in love before). There are no slow spots in a (good) movie, just different kinds of excitement.

Robert Wise, the director, got his start as editor of a little film called CITIZEN KANE... and went on to direct CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and BODY SNATCHER for Val Lewton. After that, he directed a string of great films - everything from ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW to WEST SIDE STORY to THE SOUND OF MUSIC to ANDROMEDA STRAIN. I think he kind pf blows apart the autuer theory because all of his films are just *good* - but I don't see much connection between them other than - *good*. THE HAUNTING was the height of his career - and it's a million times for frightening than the remake.

It was totally cool working with Rusty Tamblyn on INVISIBLE MOM - I made sure to show up on his days. It was totally cool.

Though THE HAUNTING is okay for kids - no sex, no blood, no gore - know that it is damned scary...

- Bill

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lancelot Link Monday: Are Spec Scripts Dead?

Lancelot Link Monday! After a bunch of articles claiming the spec script was dead (as far as sales go - that's still the way to get assignments), we suddenly had two big spec sales. Is this a chicken and egg situation? Do we need a bunch more articles about how dead the spec sales market is in order to get a bunch more spec sales? If so, can someone get on that? I've got a new script that needs a new home... 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 Jungle Book..................... $60,803,000
2 Huntsman WW..................... $20,080,000
3 Barber Shop TNC................. $10,830,000
4 Zootopia......................... $6,611,000
5 The Boss......................... $6,080,000
6 BVSDOJ........................... $5,520,000
7 Criminal......................... $3,100,000
8 MBFGW2........................... $2,100,000
9 Compadres........................ $1,350,000
10 Eye Sky.......................... $1,214,963

Tom Hanks new movie opened at #11 with $1,206,850.

2) Indie & Specialty Film Box Office.

3) IT Is Coming! - This is to be the first in the Warner Bros "Stephen King Multi-Verse".

4) A Look At VERTIGO - What's With Those Colors?

5) Marvel Films - It's Inhuman!!!!

6) Jeremy Saulnier on THE GREEN ROOM.

7) Bidding War Spec Script Sale #1.

8) Spec Script Sale #2 (is this a trend?)

9) Vince Vaughn Cast In BRUTAL Prison Screenplay BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99.


11) BLADE RUNNER 2: ELECTRIC BUGALOO Changes Release Date.

12) Cannes Film Fest (and Market) Is Right Around The Corner!

And the Car Chase Of The Week:

From a movie I haven't seen in ages, that was the first time I saw Ed Harris on screen.


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Friday, April 22, 2016

THE BIRDS: Storyboards

THE BIRDS just turned fifty one... Should we celebrate by heading to Bodega Bay and letting seagulls peck out our eyes? Or just look at the movie?

Alfred Hitchcock believed you didn’t want to be figuring out what the heck you were going to shoot and how you were going to shoot it with the entire cast and crew waiting around on the clock... The place to figure out your movie was before you had hundreds of people standing around waiting. So Hitchcock (and many other directors of the time) storyboarded their films. Sometimes just the tricky scenes, sometimes the whole film. You could shot list the easy stuff, but actions scenes or scenes that required trained birds or special effects of some sort? Better to have those boarded so that you could show each department what was required for them in each shot. So here are some of the storyboards for THE BIRDS.

BIRDS Storyboards and a swell article from BFI.

To read the Fridays With Hitchcock on THE BIRDS, click back there.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Monday, April 18, 2016

Lancelot Link Monday: Jungle Out There!

Lancelot Link Monday! The first of *3* JUNGLE BOOK movies opened over the weekend... and made $291m in global ticket sales. That's just the weekend. That happens to include the #2 opening weekend for April in the USA, which beats movies like CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER and FAST 5. Okay, this version - like the other 2 that will open over the next year - is based on a *public domain* book published in 1894. You read that right - over 120 years ago. Though this version is a remake of the Disney cartoon from the 1960s, the other 2 movies are based on the PD book... and that book has been made into a huge stack of films over the years. Rudyard Kipling (the guy who wrote the book) has about 100 films based on his works over the years, many made over and over again. KIM? GUNGA DIN? MAN WHO WOULD BE KING? RIKKI TIKKI TAVI? Think about all of the great public domain stuff out there! 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 Jungle Book.................... $103,567,000
2 Barbershop: TNC................. $20,210,000
3 Boss............................ $10,170,000
4 Batman V Superman................ $9,010,000
5 ZooTop........................... $8,235,000
6 Criminal......................... $5,850,000
7 MBFGW2........................... $3,260,000
8 Miracles FH...................... $1,900,000
9 GND2............................. $1,700,644
10 EyeSky........................... $1,637,517

Box Office continues to grow - this is year looks like another record breaker, even without a STAR WARS movie. So far we are 8.3% ahead of last year, 14.6% ahead of 2014, 23.1% ahead of 2013, 8.6% ahead of 2012, and only 28.8% ahead of 2011. Yes - that's over a quarter more! People seem to be avoiding cinemas this year and would rather spend $50 to see a new movie at home... NOT!

2) The GHOST IN THE SHELL Kerfuffle And Max Landis (who once told em I'm funny - and I will keep repeating that forever).

3) To Text Or Not To Text - That Is AMC's Question.

4) Statham In New Rom-Com Titled MEG?

5) Behind The Scenes On THE TRUMAN SHOW.

6) All Star Cast In Aronofsky's Home Invasion Film.

7) Awesome Hong Kong Director Johnnie To's New Film THREE Trailer (ELECTION 3?)

8) Kubricks' THE SHINING Treatment.

9) How Much AVATAR Can You Take?

10) Would You Pay To See New Movies On Your TV? How Much?

11) From Writer's Imagination To TV Series.

12) 100 Years - 100 Shots!

And the Car Chase Of The Week:


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Thursday, April 14, 2016

THRILLER Thursday: The Prisoner In The Mirror

Best Of Thriller: Prisoner In The Mirror

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

Season: 1, Episode: 34.
Airdate: May 23, 1961

Director: Herschel Daugherty
Writer: Robert Arthur
Cast: Henry Daniell, Lloyd “It’s a cookbook” Bochner, Marion Ross.
Music: Morton Stevens
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The hand of death strikes suddenly, and without regard for the plain, the beautiful, the bad or the good. For when the hand of death is controlled by a force of evil the consequences can defy belief. Our story tonight concerns just such a force and it features a most unusual star: This mirror. In it you will see our players caught in a strange reflection. Mr. Lloyd Bochner, Miss Marion Ross, Mr. Jack Mullaney, Miss Pat Michon, and Mr. Henry Daniell. So be prepared to gaze through a glass darkly. But don’t! Please don’t stand too close! I should hate to see this happen to any of you.”

(Break to continue the prologue story in 1910)

“Young Robert was no murderer, nor was he mad as he may have seemed. He was a victim of one of the most diabolical practitioners of black magic ever known, Count Alessandro Cagliostro. Only a legend you say? Well, perhaps, but that’s for you to decide. Now we resume our tale, more than half a century later.”

(Now to present day)

Synopsis: Paris, 1910: The elegant Robert de Chantenay (David Frankham) and woman Marie Blanchard (Erika Peters) sip champagne in a restaurant. Robert does some amazing slight of hand magic producing a bouquet of roses, a bird, a diamond necklace! She is amazed and amused and wants more. He uses the diamond necklace to hypnotize her... but the end of his hypnosis is a frightening: “Life transformed into death.” He suddenly turns into a skeleton, and puts the necklace around her neck with a boney hand! Who is Robert de Chantenay? A sorcerer? A demon?

Later, Robert paints the mirror in his room black... when there is a knock at the door. It is his Mother (Frieda Inescort), who says there are men downstairs who want to speak to him... *police*men! They have a warrant for his arrest for the murder of Marie! Robert tells his Mother that he is innocent, but could never prove it... so he jumps out a window to his death! Splat! On the cobblestones below.

Back to Karloff for the second half of his introduction, then...

Paris, Today: In the Societe Curiosites Historiques, Professor Harry Langham (Lloyd Bochner) is investigating the historical figure known as Count Alesssandro Cagliostro but is warned not to by Professor Thibault (Peter Brocco) because Cagliostro was pure evil... undying evil. They are interrupted by Harry’s research assistant Fred Forrest (Jack Mullaney) who reminds Harry of an appointment. Harry tells Thibault that his research has lead him to look for a large mirror owned by Cagliostro that was acquired by Robert de Chantenay and sold soon after his suicide in 1910. Thibault suggests he look through the records at Armand’s, where every valuable antique bought or sold or stolen in Paris has been catalogued. Professor Thibault still wants Harry to abandon his quest for information about Cagliostro and offers to take him to the tomb of Yvette Dulaine, a favorite at the court of Louis The Sixteenth who fell under the spell of Cagliostro which lead to a strange and terrible fate. A dark tomb of a beautiful woman who suffered a terrible fate? Who could say no to that?

The Tomb: downstairs, gated and padlocked. Dark and creepy. Harry asks, “How did she die?” Thibault answers, “Did she die at all?” He opens the coffin and... Yvette (Patricia Michon) looks exactly the same as when she died in 1780. Is she dead or under a spell? Harry looks at her, she’s young and attractive... forever. Also probably dead. Is he falling in love with a dead woman? How could she remain so well preserved?

Harry talks to Mssr. Armand (Louis Mercier), who has a huge collection of antique mirrors... including one covered with black paint which was once owned by Robert de Chantenay. When Armand steps away to speak with someone else, Harry begins to remove the paint seeing the reflection of himself... and Yvette standing behind him!

Boston, Today: Professor Harry’s house, Fred and his sister Kay (Marion Ross looking nothing like Richie’s mom on HAPPY DAYS) are unpacking the mirror that Harry paid a fortune for in Paris. Cagliostro’s mirror? Fred wants Kay to hurry up and marry Harry so that he’ll settle down and stop these obsessive searches for weird historical artifacts. That’s when Harry comes home, kisses Kay, and asks Fred to help him carry the mirror upstairs. They place the mirror in the bedroom, and as soon as Fred and Kay are gone, Harry looks into the mirror for Yvette. He scrapes off the rest of the paint, until it’s a normal mirror again. No reflections but his own. Harry pulls up a chair to watch the mirror... and as darkness falls outside, he goes downstairs to dinner.

Professor Fred has dinner with his fiance Kay, who asks why he’s so distant. He tells her the story of Yvette... forever young and dead in that crypt. Kay wonders if he’s fallen in love with... a corpse. How can she compete with that? After dinner Harry goes up to his room and look at the mirror again. He is *obsessed* with Dead Yvette! Kay’s fears are not unfounded.

In the middle of the night, a weird reflection in the mirror: a flame? Yes! It’s Yvette lighting candles on “her side” of the mirror. Her side of the mirror is another room in another time, and Harry is not reflected there. It’s as if the mirror is a portal into another world. Harry talks to the mirror, on “her side” Yvette shakes her head when asked if she can speak... he wants to help her. Maybe he wants to kiss her, too, but Kay knocks on the door. She was worried about him. He was acting strangely at dinner, and then raced upstairs afterwards. Is he okay? Harry opens the door, but wants to keep her away from the mirror (and Yvette, the other woman in his life)... Then asks her to look in the mirror and tell him what she sees. Kay moves to the mirror, looks straight into the glass... but only sees her own reflection. The world on the other side of the mirror has vanished! “She’s gone! You scared her away!” He yells at Kay to get out of the room. She thinks he may have gone a little crazy and splits. He *has* gone a little crazy...

When Harry goes back to the mirror, instead of Yvette’s reflection in that other world he sees “another victim of Count Alexander Cagliosto” (the awesome Henry Daniel) who claims Cagliostro’s evil spell has made him and Yvette prisoners in this mirror... and Harry can help them escape. Harry looks at the beautiful Yvette, he can help her escape? All he has to do is repeat aloud one of Cagliostro’s spells... and then the Man hypnotizes Harry. Hey, that’s not a victim of Cagliostro, that’s the evil man himself! As Harry speaks back the spell, Cagliostro orders his soul to join them in the mirror... and Harry’s soul gets up from the chair (his body left behind) and walks *into the mirror*! Joining them on the other side! This is done in one shot, by the way: which is totally cool. A “how did they do that?” moment.

Harry wakes up in the mirror world...

Where Cagliostro tells him that he has left his body unoccupied by a soul, which will allow Cagliostro to occupy it! Harry watches as Cagliostro exist the mirror and enters Harry’s sleeping body on the other side... and then his body awakens! Harry has allowed the evil of Cagliostro to be release once more upon the world! He is trapped in the mirror with Yvette while his body goes on an evil rampage!

The body of Harry picks up some hot babe named Laura (Pamela Curran) in a sleazy waterfront bar, does some slight of hand magic to make flowers appear and gives them to her. He takes her for a walk in the moonlight...

Wakes up the next morning and has a conversation with Harry’s soul, trapped in the mirror. A knock on the bedroom door... and Kay says there’s a man downstairs to see you... a Policeman (echo from the opening scene!). Harry/Cagliostro tells Key he’ll talk to the Policeman in private, and then apologizes to her for acting strange these past few days. When Kay leaves, Harry/Cagliostro goes to the mirror and tells Harry that he plans on nailing her later. Why wait until after the marriage for the honeymoon? How can Harry get out of the mirror world and stop him?

Harry/Cagliostro goes downstairs and talks to Sgt. Burke from Homicide (Walter Reed) who wants to know where he was at 3AM this morning. Harry says he was here, working. Burke says that a cop on the beat saw him enter the house at 4:15 AM. Harry explains that he took a walk at 4AM. Well, Sgt Burke say it seems that one of his students saw him leave the bar with Laura... who was later found murdered. Harry/Cagliostro says he isn’t exactly the type to hang out in bars like that, and his students shouldn’t be, either. I mean, he’s a college professor! What would he be doing in such a place? Obviously a case of mistaken identity. Sgt. Burke leaves, agreeing that it’s most likely a case of mistaken identity.

Then Harry/Cagliostro lays a massive kiss on Kay. Rotor rooter tongue action!

That night Harry/Cagliostro and Kay leave for a night on the town, passing Fred... who has a copy of the paper with the murder headline in his hands.

In the mirror world, Harry is trapped... worried about Kay.

Fred goes up to Harry’s room to look for clues to Harry’s recent strange actions (is he the killer of that woman?), but as much as Harry yells from inside the mirror, Fred can not hear him. Fred eventually falls asleep in the chair facing the mirror...

Harry/Cagliostro and Kay come back from their night out and Kay wants a cigarette, looks in Harry’s coat pocket and finds some women’s ear rings... which match the ear rings in the newspaper photo of the murdered girl that Fred left on the table. Suspense: is her fiancĂ© a killer? What should she do? Run? Wimpy women run, Kay confronts Harry/Cagliostro... who takes the ear ring out of her hands and uses it to hypnotize her!

Fred hears a noise and goes downstairs, finding Kay... murdered! Fred chases Harry/Cagliostro upstairs into the bedroom. They have a big fight, and *the mirror breaks*! Harry/Cagliostro dies... and Harry’s soul is trapped with Yvette in the mirror world forever!

Review: That might be a happy ending, since he gets the girl, or a frightening ending because he should have been more careful what he wished for!

On a message board we’re talking about how amazingly high concept TWILIGHT ZONES were, considering they were made on sixties TV show budgets. This is another example of what you can do on a very limited budget. We not only have the idea of the mirror world, we have *body swapping* years before FREAKY FRIDAY! The great thing about body swapping is that it’s just two actors acting like each other. What does that cost? Here it’s particularly sinister because we have an evil man taking joy rides in other people’s bodies and leaving the body owner to clean up the mess (or commit suicide because there is no way to clean it up). It’s a frightening idea, and it’s dirt cheap to film.

The Mirror World is another great idea that costs nothing (but talent) to film. The “sells it shot” where Harry’s soul detaches from his body and walks into the mirror is done with two simple shots. One is a double exposure with the camera locked down and Harry sitting in the chair, then a shot of harry getting up and walking away from the chair. Marry them and you have one Harry sitting as a translucent Harry gets up and walks away from his sitting self. The other shot is a little more complicated, but still not a budget buster. We see Harry *walk into the mirror* and disappear from this side as he exists only in the other side! All one shot. Of course, this is a $1.98 special effect where the mirror is just a frame with the “mirror world” on the other side. Harry just walks up to the frame, steps over it, and continues walking on the other side where Yvette is. Then he turns and looks out at a shot of his body in that chair. The Marx Brothers did a more complicated version of this in DUCK SOUP for laughs. When the mirror world disappeared, they just put a mirror in that frame! Though they didn’t do this for the episode, if you wanted to do this now I’d get a semi silvered mirror (two way mirror) and you could make a real reflection fade out into the mirror world without any cuts at all. (It looks like they might have done this in the episode, but the fade is too quick.) If you are doing a low budget movie you have to use much more imagination... that’s what you have instead of money. Same was true in television when this episode was made.

The echo scene of the police coming to talk to Robert in 1910 Paris and later Harry in present day America is great because we know the outcome of the Robert scene and fear that this will be the outcome for Harry as well. Things like this work in any genre and create suspense and dread... at no cost.

Henry Daniell was in five episode of THRILLER and is one of those great hambone British actors who just stole every second he was on screen. No one could be as deliciously evil as Daniell. He was an excellent Professor Moriarty in the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies and costarred with Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER in 1945.

Marion Ross, Mrs. Cunningham from HAPPY DAYS, is a that young wholesome woman you’d take home to the parents and marry. She’s young and attractive, but not in an overt sexual way. This totally works for the story, because it’s one thing for Cagliostro to rape and murder some slutty bar girl, but much more shocking if it’s the super nice virgin. I realize that’s just plain wrong to say: it’s awful either way. But the in visual shorthand it’s one thing to kill a growling pittbull and another to kill a cute puppy. Yeah, both are dead dogs, but audience’s make value judgements and sometimes we use those value judgements for dramatic purposes.

Lloyd Bochner is one of those actors who are *everywhere*. The year after this he would be on TWILIGHT ZONE in Richard Matheson’s TO SERVE MAN, and he’s *everywhere*. He’s in my favorite film POINT BLANK, he’s a villain on THE WILD WILD WEST, he’s on both THE MAN and THE GIRL FROM UNCLE, he’s on HOAGN’S HEROES and IT TAKES A THIEF, he’s on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and COLUMBO. He has 202 show credits on IMDB and some of those are TV shows where he was a recurring character, so it’s *hundreds* of total credits! This is a guy who could play heroes and villains and everything in between. This is his only THRILLER episode, and TO SERVE MAN was his only TWILIGHT ZONE episode, but he is memorable in both.

Though this episode isn’t as scary as some of the other horror eps, it has a creepy idea that sticks with you. What if someone could take your body for a joyride?


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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Monsterpalooza 3

From 5 Years Ago... And Coming Next Weekend!

Over the weekend I went to Monsterpalooza 3, and every year it is *more crowded* than the last. This year, I looked outside at about 3pm and there was still a line *around the building*!

So, I was supposed to meet my friend Rod there, and looked all over for him... bumping in to other friends and talking with them along the way. As the day went on, I hadn't seen him, and decided to call. Should have done that earlier, but I figured we were in the same very crowded building and eventually would spot each other. Rod picks up - he's just left the venue. He was there - but it was so crowded we never even saw each other!

I went to a couple of panels - the guy who played Godzilla (in the suit) was speaking - a little old Japanese man who told amusing stories about being dressed in rubber and hanging from wires and sometimes being injured in a fight with some other stuntman in a rubber monster suit, but not telling anyone because it took so long to get the suit on and get hooked up to the wires that it was easier to work injured.

As a kid, GODZILLA movies were weekend afternoon TV movie staples. They were silly fun, and I've always been a fan of the big guy. Also Mothra. And Mothra's caterpillars. And those two little girls in the bird cage. I had a Godzilla plastic model and some Godzilla toys and a Godzilla movie poster. Mostly as a goof. Later I had a movie poster for Larry Cohen's IT'S ALIVE, a goofy movie that was actually about something...

The next panel was for THE HOWLING, which is one of my favorite movies. I fell in love with Belinda Balaski in PIRANHA and she and John Sayles and Joe Dante all went on to make HOWLING together. Also on the panel - Dee Wallace (who is in my INVISIBLE MOM movie) and Robert Picardo (this was his first film), and one of Rob Bottin's FX make up team. They had some good stories - one day Bottin took 13 hours putting the werewolf make up on Picardo... and by the time he was done they had run out of time to shoot! Other stories about the difficulties of acting opposite FX to be added later, and the stop motion scenes that were cut out of the film. Dante talked a lot about John Sayles contributions, and the decision to add humor - because audiences can find unintentional humor in an overly serious horror flick, so if you mix a little humor in they laugh at that instead and aren't trying to make fun of the real scares. The whole EST thing was Sayles' contribution, too. I know all of this stuff from reading every article on the film when it came out, but cool to see the real people talk about it. Belinda still looks great.

The next panel was American Grindhouse, and featured a bunch of great film makers - Joe Dante stuck around, but the highlights for me were the amazing Larry Cohen (IT'S ALIVE - and dozens of others, plus *hundreds* of screenplays from DADDY'S GONE A HUNTING (1969) to PHONE BOOTH and CELLULAR (a few years ago), plus Jack Harris (FOXY BROWN and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE) and Bill Lustig (MANIAC COP and RELENTLESS). All of that talent onstage, and the moderator (director of the doc AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE, which is great and a free view on Hulu if you are in the USA) screwed it up by not having any prepared questions and then asking a bunch of silly questions about experiences in 42 Street cinemas in the 70s. Huh? No real questions about making the films (though in the doc Larry Cohen tells some greats tories about shooting the end of BLACK CAESAR on the streets of New York with no permits and just people walking down the street as accidental extras. Fred Williamson (in my CROOKED movie) gets shot and staggers down the street bleeding and eventually falls over and dies - all with real New Yorkers as unknowing extras! I would have loved to have Lustig talk about making movies for grindhouses & drive ins... and then make similar movies for Cinetel like HIT LIST and RELENTLESS (great low budget flick) and then do direct to video stuff like UNCLE SAM. Nobody asked.

After that I did a final loop through the event and then went to the hotel bar and had me some beers on an empty stomach. Darin Scott and many from the Thursday Night Gang were there, plus Tyger Torres (was his birthday), and a bunch of others. I hung out, talked to Don about his DIY feature, and eventually realized I'd better get on the bike and pedal home while I could still balance. In previous blog entries I've talked about what the event is all about, so I'm linking those entries below:

Monsterpalooza #1 - 2009.

Monsterpalooza #2 - 2010.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Is Your Screenplay Ready? - a few ways to figure out.
Dinner: McD's chicken club while in transit on the bike.
Pages: No. Well, actually a page - but that wasn't enough. Trying to dive back into this script after working on 2 others for a week.
Bicycle: Yes. I've been doing medium rides every day. I've also thrown the bike on the front of the Orange Line "bullet bus" to ride in far off lands west of here.

Movies: YOUR HIGHNESS - It was better than I was lead to expect from the reviews, and I liked it more than PINEAPPLE... but have no idea how this will ever show on network TV. It's seriously R rated. I laughed, and thought the elements of parody were fun (from the mechanical bird to the endless shots of them marching on mountain tops like in LOTR). I also thought the hand villain guy was a cool idea. Some of the gags didn't work, but it had a story that made sense. I think the problem with a film like PINEAPPLE is that you have this shaggy dog nonsense story, so when gags don't work - nothing works. At least here we had a story to fall back on when a gag fell flat with a splat. Not a great movie (may use one of the big flaws in a script tip - dude starts out as a whinny worthless slacker... and ends up as one, too... I could not understand why he's a hero at the end) but no reason for the critics to trash it to this extreme. I think all of the reviews I read hated it because it was raunchy... and that's what it was supposed to be - a raunchy comedy. Well, it's seriously raunchy, but that's kind of the point.

What's interesting to me about this film: it tested *really* well and everyone thought it was going to be a big hit... but it wasn't. Is that because McBride isn't a star? Because they didn't want to see a raunchy comedy this week? Because there's a difference between test screenings and when a film opens?

Seeing a (secret) movie Tuesday and may see HANNA on Wednesday.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Lancelot Link Monday: No Matter Who Loses, The Boss Wins.

Lancelot Link Monday! BATMAN V SUPERMAN was beaten by THE BOSS after some severe drops in Box Office. I checked in on it on Wednesday, and in it's second Wednesday it had made only 2/3rds of what ZOOTOPIA made in it's *third* Wednesday. Word of mouth seemed to be killing the film. People were telling their friends to avoid it... so maybe the critics were right? Though the film has made 3/4 of a billion bucks, that's on a $400m budget (what was originally reported) and that means it needs to hit over $800m to break even, and it has already begun a pretty steep descent. It will probably make money, but not much. WB has moved WONDER WOMAN forward, but word is the story is just as dark... instead of being *fun*. We want to be entertained! Even a 70s style paranoid thriller like WINTER SOLDIER where everyone is Hailing Hydra at the end was *fun* and *entertaining*! DC needs to learn that audience's just want to have fun. You can explore dark territory, but you need some light. No light, we can't see anything. It's not DEADPOOL quips that we need, it's just fun. So, audiences would rather see THE BOSS (which also got terrible reviews, so don't expect it to spend much time in the #1 position). But - only 8 more months to ROGUE ONE! 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 Boss............................ $23,480,000
2 BvS............................. $23,435,000
3 Zootopia........................ $14,353,000
4 MBFGW2........................... $6,420,000
5 Hardcore Henry................... $5,096,000
6 Miracles From Heaven............. $4,844,000
7 GND2............................. $4,333,707
8 Allegiant........................ $3,600,000
9 10 Cloverfield................... $3,000,000
10 Eye In Sky....................... $2,829,375

THE BOSS wasn't loved by opening night audiences - only C+ on Cinemascore.

2) Hey, They're Making Another EDGE OF TOMORROW Movie... Or LIVE, DIE, REPEAT - if you saw it on DVD.

3) Hey, They're Making A New SPIDER-MAN... Do You Think He'll Be In Grade School This Time?

4) A Look At DePalma's BODY DOUBLE.

5) How Bette Davis Became A Star. (Her Birthday Was Last Week)

6) MTV Movie Award Winners... Yes, It's Still Awards Season!

7) Paul Greengrass Bitches The The Film Business Is Changing. Also - wants kids to get off his lawn.

8) And In Movies Shot On A Phone News....

9) Interview With LOUDER THAN BOMBS' Joachim Trier.

10) Guess What? They're Making Another Wolverine Movie! Will Deadpool Be Featured?

11) Theme Told Visually In CAROL.

12) Without A Box Vs Film Freeway (Film Fest Entries).

And the Car Chase Of The Week:


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Friday, April 08, 2016

Fridays With Hitchcock:
Shadow Of A Doubt (1943)

Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Alma Reville, and Sally Benson.

One of Hitchcock’s favorite films, a quiet little story of small town life and a visit from a larger than life relative who may or may not be a serial killer. Very low key - no chase scenes or fight scenes and all of the suspense is built around whether that adventurous relative is just an interesting guy or a criminal hiding from the police.

Though the pacing may be a little slow for 2015, the performance by Joseph Cotton is still great. Cotton is one of those underappreciated actors - he worked with Hitchcock and Orson Welles and Carol Reed starred in a great technicolor noir film with Marilyn Monroe as the femme fatale. He is not one of those Burt Lancaster larger-than-life actors, and you might think someone like Lancaster might have made a good Uncle Charles - international businessman who has been to Paris and Venice and the Orient. But Cotton’s performance in SHADOW OF A DOUBT is amazingly layered - he is both avuncular and adventurous. Charming and fun... but with an undercurrent of violence. When he smiles, you wonder if he’s ever ripped out someone’s throat with those teeth. He manages to do both things at once - so it’s not like there are two sides to Uncle Charles - he is always both charming and dangerous.

The key to the film is thinking that his character is that cool Uncle who brings you gifts and is fun to be with and tells these amazing stories of his exotic adventures... and also may be a serial killer. There are interesting scenes where he says inappropriate things (like at the bank) and that strange dinner table rant about how the world is really much uglier than it appears. Cotton goes from smiles to barely contained anger and insanity and back to a smile before anyone can react. He manages to give off conflicting vibes in every scene - nice guy and lunatic. Between this film and THE THIRD MAN you wonder why Cotton wasn’t a big star.

Nutshell: Charlie (Theresa Wright) is a young woman in small town Santa Rosa, California who is still living at home with her parents and siblings... and bored. She wishes something exciting would happen, like a visit from her Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotton) - a charming, wealthy businessman who travels the world and has an adventurous life. Her wish comes true when Uncles Charles comes to visit, with gifts for everyone in the family, and a beautiful ring for her. Uncle Charles plans on staying for a while, and has $40,000 in cash he wants to deposit in the bank where Charlie’s father (Henry Travers) works. If having $40,000 in cash in your pocket seems a little suspicious in 2015, imagine what that meant in 1943! Uncle Charles is a man of mysteries - he does not want to be photographed or have strangers know about him... and sometimes he behaves strangely. Charlie begins to wonder what her favorite uncle might be hiding... and when a pair of men show up claiming to be interviewing the family for a magazine article, Uncle Charles begins acting even more secretive. Young Charlie investigates, and discovers the two men are actually FBI Agents on the trail of a serial killer - the Merry Widow Killer - who targets wealthy widows. Is her favorite uncle a serial killer?

Experiment: Though the use of music and shots of people dancing is kinda weird, I'm going to save that for the section on soundtrack...

What is interesting about SHADOW is that it’s all about small town life and small town dreams. Hitchcock had adapted novels by famous writers in the past, and worked with some important writers (like Dorothy Parker) on screenplays, but this was the first of two movies that began with stories by big name writers - in this case, Thornton Wilder who wrote OUR TOWN... and Hitch followed this with a story by John Steinbeck for LIFEBOAT. I think it’s an interesting idea to use a famous writer as one of the “stars” of your movie - and in the case of SHADOW OF A DOUBT Wilder not only gets a story credit, he gets a special up front credit as well. Both SHADOW and LIFEBOAT were not adapted from previous material, they were original stories commissioned by Hitchcock (and the producers) for the film.

The general public read back then - this was before television, and even though there were dramas on the radio, there wasn’t a lunch box in America that didn’t have a fiction magazine inside. This was the pulp era - when some construction worker or plumber or store clerk would read short stories or a serialized novel or a chapter of a pulp novel on their lunch break... and after work, and maybe on the bus or trolley or train on the way to work. And their wives and girlfriends might read romance pulps, plus some upscale magazines like Blue Book or Saturday Evening Post which featured stories by people like Steinbeck and Wilder and other important writers of the time. This was a different world than today - when everyday people who barely got out of high school with a diploma - or maybe went to a trade high school where the focus was on *shop classes* - was still an avid reader. Of course, what they read might be the written equivalent of a Chuck Norris movie or an A TEAM episode, but they were readers. The cliche for a stupid, uneducated woman at the time showed them *reading* a romance or celebrity scandal magazine. The average person knew who Thornton Wilder was, and had probably read one of his stories. He was a *star* in the world of fiction - and that was part of the average person’s world.

So commissioning a story by the expert on small town life, Thornton Wilder, was kind of an experiment. What other movies were using *writers* as stars? This film feels related to THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, another film about small town life... and murder. It has a casual pace, so if you pop it in the DVD player - be prepared. Think of it as a story of small town life with a touch of murder, rather than a thrill ride.

Contrast Concept: Probably one of the reasons why this is one of Hitchcock's favorites is that it's an illustration of his theory that murder should not be in some dark alley but in some suburban kitchen. Contrast is conflict, and using sweet small town America as the location for a dark serial killer story makes the story much more interesting than if it took place in the big city.

Hitch Appearance: Look for him on the train to Santa Rosa playing cards, near the beginning of the film.

Great Scenes: As a story about small town life, it’s set pieces are small as well. This is a film about details. The suspense scenes are realistic rather than operatic. We don’t get crop dusters and cornfields or fights on the Statue of Liberty’s torch, we get scenes where someone hums a tune at the dinner table and can’t remember what it is and scenes where a character needs to read a newspaper story at the library, which closes in 5 minutes. It’s almost like a Hitchcock film seen through the wrong end of a telescope - instead of being larger than life, it’s about those small things in life... like the faint engravings on the inside of an old ring.

Character Connections: In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, villain Belloq tells Indy, "You and I are very much alike... Our methods are not as different as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would only take a nudge to make you like me; to push you out of the light." The protagonist and antagonist are the two most important characters in a screenplay, and showing their similarities is a great way to highlight their differences.

When we first see Uncle Charles he’s sitting up in bed smoking a cigar, maybe remembering a pleasant experience (which may have included murdering someone). When we first see young Charlie, she is sitting up in bed in the exact same position (though not smoking a cigar), dreaming of having an adventurous experience (though probably not murdering anyone). Both shots are the same composition and have slow dolly ins. Even though whether the camera dollies or not is the director’s job - the writer had to come up with the scenes of both sitting up in bed. Creating that similarity for the director to photograph. Our job is to set up the story and characters so that the director can find the perfect shot(s) to show that these two are very similar people. The writer also decided to give both protagonist and antagonist the same name - which makes the audience automatically look for those similarities between the two. There are many other things Uncle Charles and young Charlie have in common... and this helps us compare the two in order to find their differences. Belloq and Indiana Jones may be similar, but it's what makes them different that is important.

Uncle Charles lives a life of travel and adventure, going from one big city to another... and that is what young Charlie dreams about. She wants to get out of boring Santa Rosa and see the world. But all of the similarities between the two just serve to point up the differences. Uncle Charles has seen the world and hates it... hates the people in it. Charlie loves people. The more we see these two together, the more we see that they are not the same at all, but opposites. This is a great way to bring out character, and a great way to create conflict - Uncle Charles does something negative and Charlie does something positive to correct it.

Did He Or Didn’t He? The odd flaw in the film is one of point of view - we begin with Uncle Charles seemingly on the run from the law, and this make him seem guilty from the get-go... and robs the film of some suspense and emotion.

The keyword is *doubt*. The “did he or didn’t he?” plot is often used in thrillers, and we’ll take a closer look at it when we discuss SUSPICION, but since it is the central question in SHADOW it deserves a mention. In movies like MUSIC BOX and JAGGED EDGE (both written by Joe Eszerhas) the suspense is created by the protagonist (and audience) not knowing if the person they are emotionally involved with is guilty of a crime or not. In JAGGED EDGE workaholic attorney Glenn Close is hired to defend hunky Jeff Bridges on charges that he murdered his wealthy wife. Close falls in love with him... and the rest of the script explores that central question by bouncing us back and forth between believing that he's guilty as sin and a lovable hunk falsely accused of murder by an overzealous D.A. (the great Peter Coyote). We hope that he's innocent so that she can find love but fear that he's guilty. Did he or did he not commit the murder? Guilty or innocent? That is the central question in JAGGED EDGE and in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

At the heart of every screenplay is the central question. It's what propels the story forward and keeps the audience involved. In a romantic comedy, the central question might be: Will they hook up or not? In a disaster movie it might be: Will they survive, and *who* will survive? The story begins with the introduction of the central question and then keeps us wondering how it will be resolved for the next 100 pages. This question is what keeps the story going - and will not be answered until the end of the movie. It is the fuel that propels the story, and the moment the question is answered, there is no more fuel for the story - which is why the opening scene where Uncle Charles seems to be on the run from the law makes this film less effective.

To keep the question “alive” and keep the suspense growing, we need to keep that question in the foreground - and not let the audience forget it. Which is where the doubt comes in. We need to doubt that Uncle Charles in innocent, and then when a dark cloud of evidence casts a shadow over him, doubt that he is guilty. The film is all about doubt!

SHADOW OF A DOUBT accomplishes this by having young Charlie discover evidence that Uncle Charles is guilty... and just when she has no choice but to confront him, counter evidence is uncovered that makes him look innocent. Doubt and doubt. There is also a shadow motif in the story - Uncle Charles seems to always be in the shadows - at the top of the stairs or in the corner of the room... and in the opening scene his landlady lowers the blinds on his window, casting a shadow over his face. When Uncle Charles comes to Santa Rosa on the train (pretending to be an invalid) he is in a dark sleeping compartment the entire trip... and when the train pulls into the station, dark smoke from the smokestack covers the station.

Doubt and doubt: Uncle Charles has gifts for everyone, but gives Charlie a special gift - a beautiful ring. Charlie notices that there is engraving inside the band - and wonders where Uncle Charles got the ring (is it stolen?). Uncle Charles says he bought it from a jeweler - and they must have sold him a used ring! Imagine the nerve of the jeweler! Later in the film Charlie discovers the initials are of one of the Merry Widow Killer’s victims... is her favorite Uncle a serial killer... or is it just a coincidence. We can never be sure one way or the other, because then the film would be over.

Doubt and doubt: Uncle Charles needs to be the first to read the newspaper, and one night *tears a story out* so that no one can read it. But he covers this by making a newspaper castle for Charlie’s little brother and sister. Was tearing out the story part of making the castle, or something else? Later, Charlie spots a torn out section of the newspaper in Uncle Charles jacket pocket... but he’s right there in the room with her so she can not grab it and find out what Uncle Charles doesn’t want the rest of the family to know. Is it an article about a criminal at large... or an advertizement for some fine wine on sale that he plans on buying to surprise the family? We don’t know.

Doubt and doubt: When the two Magazine Guys come to interview the family because they are the “typical American family”, Uncle Charles does not want to be interviewed - he says he doesn’t really live in the house, he’s just a guest. This is a great scene because the two Magazine Guys keep insisting that Uncle Charlie *is* part of the family so they want to interview him, which means Uncle Charlie must keep finding new and better reasons not to be interviewed... and this becomes suspicious.

Later, the older Magazine Guy takes a picture of Uncle Charles, and he *freaks* and demands they give him the roll of film, even though it will ruin *all* of the pictures they have taken (including mom baking a cake). Then he calmly explains that he just doesn’t like people taking pictures of him without permission - isn’t that his right? This ends up being a big moment for young Charlie, because asking for tyhe whole roll of film just seems like overkill. Why not just ask that they not use or print that picture? Young Charlie begins to wonder what Uncle Charles is hiding.

Doubt and doubt. Back and forth throughout the film - one piece of evidence makes Uncle Charles look guilty and then another piece of evidence is discovered that makes him look innocent. Just when young Charlie is *sure* that he’s guilty, the other prime suspect in the case runs from the police... right into the propellor of an airplane! Case closed - they are sure he ran because he was guilty. Charlie was wrong to doubt her Uncle Charles... or was she?

Because we are never sure if Uncle Charles is guilty or not until Act 3, we don’t know if we can trust him... and we don’t know if young Charlie is in danger or not. Throughout Act 2 we go from thinking Uncle Charles is guilty in one scene to believing he is innocent in the next scene. Back and forth - until we get to Act 3 and *know* he is the killer... and know that he will do anything to keep that information secret. Even kill his favorite niece.

The Subtle Art Of Murder: But even the murder attempts may just be accidents - that’s what they seem to be at least. Plenty of room for doubt.

Charlie has taken to using the back stairs of the house to avoid Uncle Charles... and one day on her way to the store one of the stairs breaks and sends her toppling down the staircase almost killing her. The step just broke. Later that night she examines the broken step - was it cut? Doesn’t seem to be, but *might* have been. Lots of doubt. Is Uncle Charles trying to kill her... or was it just an old step?

A couple of days later the whole family is going to an event where Uncle Charles is giving a speech, and there are too many people for their one car. Uncle Charles suggests they call a taxi for the family, and he will ride in the family car with young Charlie. Charlie knows Uncle Charles is planning something - but can’t just come out and say it - all she has are suspicions. The shadow of doubt falls over everything. She tries to get her mother to come with her in the car, knowing that Uncle Charles couldn’t do anything with a witness. But Mom wants to go with the rest of the family in the taxi - how often do they get to ride in a taxi? Charlie does everything to get her to come, finally convinces her, and goes out to get the car... But when she gets into the garage, someone has left the motor running and the garage is filled with exhaust. Big black shadowy smoke! When Charlie tries to turn off the car’s motor, the garage door swings shut and get stuck - accident, or murder attempt? Charlie is trapped in the garage and the exhaust overtakes her.

By this point, we know it’s Uncle Charles... and Charlie is pretty sure he’s trying to kill her, but all of these things seem like accidents. How can you accuse a family member of trying to kill you when it’s a stuck garage door?

Unusual Characters: One of the great things in SHADOW OF A DOUBT are the characters - when we have a story that is about small town life, we tend to focus on the characters... and usually the *quirky* characters. If you read my Script Secrets website, you may be familiar with my “Dog Juice” theory - that all dogs have the exact same amount of energy no matter what size the dog is. A Chihuahua has the same amount of energy as a St. Bernard - but what is too much energy for that small dog is not enough energy for the enormous dog. This is why a normal dog like a Retriever or a Shepard is a perfect match of dog and energy to run the dog. Movies are the same - you need the same amount of energy no matter how big the movie... and that often leads to more interesting and quirky characters being *required* in smaller films. As much as people may bitch about the stylized dialogue and unusual characters in JUNO, remove those elements and what do you have? You *need* interesting characters in a small story.

SHADOW takes many characters that might seem common and either turns them on their head or adds some quirk that makes them fascinating. By taking small town people and showing what makes each of them different and unusual, Wilder has created a story that is kind of a predecessor of TWIN PEAKS.

Charlie’s little sister Ann (Edna May Wonacott) is not sugar and spice and everything nice, she is not playing with dolls... she is reading books that are adult in nature and knows all kinds of things little girls just should not know. In one scene she’s playing, and says “step on a crack and break your mother’s back”... then *steps on as many cracks as she can*!

Charlie’s best friend Catherine (Estelle Jewell) is not some sweet small town girl or even some boy crazy 20 year old - she makes a pretty obvious play for Agent Saunders (Wallace Ford), the older FBI Agent... a man easily old enough to be her father and possibly old enough to be her grandfather. She flirts with him big time! Um, WTF is going on here?

Charlie’s father is not some boring small town bank teller, he has a hobby... he and his best friend Herbie (Hume Cronyn) read murder mysteries and try to come up with the perfect way to murder each other and get away with it. Most of their dialogue in the film is about killing each other and avoiding arrest - talk about TWIN PEAKS characters!

None of the characters in the film are cliche - they are as strange and individual as the characters from NORTHERN EXPOSURE and TWIN PEAKS... though they still seem “realistic” members of a small town. They may be exaggerated a little, but film characters tend to be a little larger than life anyway.

Small Suspense: Because this is a small story of small town life, it also has small suspense scene. Charlie searching Uncle Charles’ room while he’s downstairs to find the torn piece of newspaper... and when she can not find the article, she races to the public library before it closes at 9pm... running across a street against a light and almost getting hit by a car. She makes it to the library just as they are closing, but this is a very low-key race against the clock: getting to the library before it closes? But at the library Charlie reads a newspaper account of the Merry Widow Killer and one of his victims... who had the same initials that are engraved in the ring Uncle Charles gave her... and we get a great pull back and up shot making Charlie seem small and vulnerable.

Sound Track: Dimitri Tiomkin - a good score, the highlight of which is Franz Lehar's Merry Widow Waltz. It’s Uncle Charles’ theme song... and when Charlie’s mother is humming it at the dinner table one night and can’t figure out what the tune is, Uncle Charles says it’s the Blue Danube... but Charlie corrects him... which creates an awkward moment that Uncle Charles covers by spilling a glass of blood red wine. Throughout the film, we get the waltz and dancers when Uncle Charles feels murderous.

Hitchcock used music in many of his films, from Mrs. Froy’s tune in THE LADY VANISHES to the Mr. Memory theme in THE 39 STEPS to this interesting signature for a character. Uncle Charlie is not just the Merry Widow Killer, the Merry Widow Waltz is his theme, something he whistles or that plays in the background of some of his scenes.

Unfortunately, by the end of the film you will be unable to get the danged tune out of your head!

SHADOW OF A DOUBT is a nice little film about small town life... and murder. Not the kind of big spectacle movie we might expect from Hitchcock, but an enjoyable film about the truth behind that favorite uncle of yours.

- Bill


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