Friday, January 28, 2022

HITCH 20: The Crystal Trench (s3e5)

This is a great new documentary series called HITCH 20 that looks at the 20 TV episodes directed by Hitchcock and here is the last episode of the third season on THE CRYSTAL TRENCH and the importance of locations in story.


In this episode we look at the relationship between story and location, and how a location can be a character in your story. In an old article in Script Magazine called HITCHCOCK’S CHOCOLATES we sweated the small stuff and looked at the relationship between characters, their tools, and their environment. Using location and props to help tell your story. How do you keep all of these elements organic, and even explore theme through location?

"One of the interesting aspects of "The Secret Agent" is that it takes place in Switzerland," Hitchcock says in HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (1967 Simon And Schuster). "I said to myself, What do they have in Switzerland? They have milk chocolate, they have the Alps, they have village dances, and they have lakes. All of these ingredients were woven into the story. Local topographical features can be used dramatically as well. We used lakes for drowning and the Alps to have our characters fall into crevasses."


Most of us give little thought to our locations, using them only as backgrounds for our stories. They end up little more than theatrical flats - a two dimensional painting of a street our characters act in front of. But location can influence story, and story elements can grow from a location.

A man walking down a dark alley.

A man walking in a park filled with children.

Both scenes show a man walking, but each 'background' will have a different effect on the audience, and on the character's mood and actions. The location changes effects the character and the character effects the direction of the story.

Orson Welles' brilliant THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (based on a novel by Sherwood King) takes place in San Francisco and uses the location to advance the story. The story of a yacht captain (Welles) who becomes involved with a beautiful woman (Rita Hayworth) and her evil husband (Everett Sloan) in a strange fake murder for life insurance scheme is like a check list of San Francisco landmarks. From Chinatown to Sausalito to Steinhart Aquarium to Playland At The Beach amusement park.

In LADY FROM SHANGHAI locations are not just background to the story, they help shape it. When the scheme goes wrong and Welles is hunted through the city by the police - no one to turn to - he hides in a Chinatown theater. Surrounded by people speaking a strange language, laughing at jokes he doesn't understand, the character is out-numbered and alone simultaneously. The choice of environment strengthens the emotions in the scene.

My DEAD RUN script is a fast paced thriller about a conspiracy to keep a murdered political candidate alive through CGI computer animation. The logical location for this story was someplace where the computer industry has deep roots. Silicon Valley was the obvious choice, but I went with the second city on my list: Seattle, Washington.

What do we find in Seattle? The Space Needle, the logging industry, gourmet coffee shops, grunge-rockers, the monorail, Puget Sound, trolley cars, and Ballard Locks Park all made my list.

Then I decided what scenes would gain the most from each of my locations. The sunny Ballard Locks Park seemed like a perfect place for a sniper attack, my end action scene would be on the Space Needle, and I could use the monorail in a chase scene. My candidate would be involved in logging and environmental issues. Everything on my location list helped to shape the final script. The plot helped me choose the city, but each individual setting influenced the way scenes played. I used the location not just as a background, but to help tell the story.

It's important to make sure your story matches the location, that the story grows naturally from the location and vice versa. You want to find the most effective setting for your story. If you are writing a script about a pair of doomed lovers, can you think of a better location than a sinking ship? The minute Jack and Rose meet each other on the Titanic, the clock is ticking. We know their relationship will be over as soon as that ship sinks. Doomed lovers, doomed location. The location is an organic part of the story.

In THE CRYSTAL TRENCH that glacier *is* a character in the story, as is the mountain the men are climbing. How could this story work in a desert? In a city? On a farm? The story is all about the glacier!


"In Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, James Stewart plays a doctor, and behaves like one throughout the whole picture," Francios Truffaut says in HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT. "His line of work is deliberately blended into the action. For instance, before telling Doris Day that their child has been kidnapped, he makes her take a sedative." Stewart's character prepares the sedative calmly, professionally. He's using the tools and methods familiar to him to solve the immediate problem.

Characters will always use familiar tools, given the choice. Tools are an extension of occupation, and occupation is an extension of character and theme. A plumber with a slide rule or a nun with a machine gun seems strange. A character s choice of tools gives us insight into his or her personality and background. They are more than just props.

In Robert Benton's KRAMER VS. KRAMER Dustin Hoffman's wife runs off to find herself, leaving him to take care of his young son. The first morning without Mom, Hoffman has to prepare breakfast. Hoffman is used to grabbing a cup of coffee on the way out the door... that's the extent of his breakfast knowledge.

His son wants french toast. So Hoffman grabs the tools he is familiar with to make the french toast. Instead of using a bowl and a whisk, he uses a coffee cup and a spoon. Breaks the eggs into the cup, beats the eggs with the spoon, then tries to dip the bread in the egg batter. His attempt to make french toast is a complete failure. He will have to learn how to use new tools as a single dad.

In my NIGHT HUNTER film, Don "The Dragon" Wilson plays the last of the vampire hunters, drifting from town to town on the trail of blood suckers. I envisioned him as a man without friends, without family, without a home. Homeless.

In the script when all of his vampire killing tools are taken away from him by the police, he is forced to find new equipment. Would he go into a store and buy it? Not in character. He's homeless, he dumpster dives. He turns discarded items found in the trash into lethal killing tools. Tools that fit his character. One hundred percent organic.

In CRYSTAL TRENCH we not only have the mountain climbing tools, we have that great telescope focused on the side of the mountain that features in scene after scene. The great thing about that telescope is that it’s not only a tool, it’s what I call a “Twitch” in my “Secrets Of Action Screenwriting” book - it’s a physical device that symbolizes an emotional conflict. It’s focused on the dead men, right? So the telescope *becomes* the dead men - a way to have them in a scene when they are actually on the side of the mountain many miles away.

Make a list of your character's "familiar tools", those things they're most comfortable using. These will be the first thing they reach for when they're trying to solve a problem. Tools they know how to use. Tools they know how to use. Tools which help illuminate character through actions.


In previous episodes of HITCH 20 we’ve talked about Hitchcock’s “stock company” of actors, and I look at Hitch’s loyalty to cast and crew members in HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE. Though many of the HITCH 20 episodes feature John Williams (the actor, not the composer) these past two episodes have featured THE AVENGERS’ Patrick Macnee. In ARTHUR he was the town constable, and here he’s the glacier expert - two very different characters!

This brings the third season of HITCH 20 to a close...

Of course, I have my own books on Hitchcock...



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!


Only 125,000 words!

Price: $5.99

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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.

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Thursday, January 27, 2022

Thriller Thursday: MARK OF THE HAND

Mark Of The Hand

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

Season: 1, Episode: 4.
Airdate: 10-04-1960

Director: Paul Henreid (“Casablanca”).
Writer: Eric Peters based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong (“The Unsuspected”).
Cast: Mona Freeman, Jessie Royce Landis, Shepperd Strudwick, Rachel Ames, Judson Pratt.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: John L. Russell (“Psycho” and Hitchcock Presents).

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “An instrument of murder is hardly a proper toy for an eight year old, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff. And this instrument casts an evil shadow even beyond the death of this corpse. And upon it is the mark of the hand. That’s the name of our story. It’s from a novel by the celebrated Charlotte Armstrong. Let me assure you my friends, this is a thriller.”

Synopsis: A woman screams. Paul Mowry (Berry Kroeger) races out of his house, across the yards, and into the luxurious home next door where he finds his brother Charlie dead on the floor of the library... shot in the back! Hottie Sylvia Walsh (Mona Freeman) stands over him, screaming. No gun in her hand. Paul looks at the third person in the room... calmly sitting in a chair holding the murder gun in her hand... 8 year old Tessa Kilburn (Terry Burnham). Sugar and spice and everything nice... a cold blooded killer!

Others rush into the room: Tessa’s father Douglas (Shepperd Strudwick), nanny Betty (Rachel Ames) and wheelchair bound Grandmother Kilburn (Jessie Royce Landis). All are shocked that the cute little 8 year old murdered the man who lives next door.

Detective Gordon (Judson Pratt) arrives and begins his investigation. Sylvia is the fiancĂ© of Douglas Kilburn, they are soon to be married. She says that Paul often came over for coffee on Sundays, and they were having a pleasant conversation when she noticed that Tessa had opened the gun case and was playing with a pistol. When they told her to please put the pistol back in the gun case, Tessa *fired* the gun! First hitting the chandelier, then hitting Charlie in the back! Sylvia scuffled with Tessa and got the gun out of her hands, but by that time it was too late... Charlie was dead. She screamed, and Charlie’s brother Paul ran over from next door entering through the glass doors. Detective Gordon questions everyone else, ending with Tessa... who is in bed. Tessa tells him she will never speak again... and says nothing else.

Detective Gordon is frustrated, says if Tessa doesn’t talk he will have to put her in a psychiatric hospital under observation. He doesn’t want to do that. He asks Grandmother Kilburn if Tessa has ever been under psychiatric care... and she says of course not.

Meanwhile, Tessa stands at her bedroom window staring across the way at Paul in the house next door. Creepy! Is she crazy?

Detective Gordon continues his investigation, uncovering that Tessa *was* under psychiatric care at one point. Goes back to question the family and Douglas admits that Tessa began acting out when he began dating Sylvia... and caused some problems. But never did anything violent. Again he tries to get Tessa to talk, but she remains silent. Oh, and her fingerprints were on the murder gun (which is where the episode title comes from: the mark of her hand is on the gun). If Tessa would tell what happened, it might just be an accident and the case could be closed without sending an 8 year old to the gas chamber... but she remains silent (and creepy).

Detective Gordon gets information that one of the people involved has a criminal record (but we aren’t told who at this point). We *suspect* that it might be Douglas. Does crime run in the family? Detective Gordon eventually reveals that the *victim* had a criminal history: forgery and blackmail and all sorts of nasty things... and that Sylvia *knew* the victim years ago, before she met Douglas! Twist! Sylvia tells Douglas that she *did* know dead Charlie, was even engaged to him at one point... but after they broke up he was obsessed with her and stalked her and rented the house next door with his brother Paul... and she was doing *everything* to keep Charlie from doing something to ruin the upcoming marriage.

Detective Gordon goes next door to question Paul, but before he can discover anything interesting, Sylvia screams again! The two men rush next door where Sylvia says that cute (creepy) little Tessa tried to stab her with a knife! They run into Tessa’s bedroom, where the kid stands holding a kitchen knife in her hand. Tessa hands Gordon the knife, but doesn’t say a word. Creepy creepy creepy!

Detective Gordon questions Sylvia about this new incident... and Sylvia admits that she lied before. She made Tessa shooting Charlie sound like an accident, when in truth Tessa shot the man in cold blood. She’s an evil child who *kills* people she doesn’t like. She’s crazy, and needs to be institutionalized... or arrested for murder. Gordon doesn’t want to arrest an 8 year old kid, but it’s looking more and more like he has no choice. If he doesn’t put the little girl behind bars, she’s going to murder someone else.

Douglas goes upstairs and has a heart to heart with Tessa, apologizes for not being a good father, apologizes for seeming to care more about Sylvia than his own daughter. Tells her that he doesn’t believe she shot Charlie or tried to stab Sylvia or any of the other things she’s been accused of. He loves her, and will always love her. Big hug time.

Meanwhile, downstairs, nanny Betty has realized that something is wrong: Gordon said they found Paul’s fingerprints on the table, but he rushed into the room through the glass doors and went straight to his brother’s body... never touched the table. And the table had been cleaned after dinner last night... so how did his fingerprints get there?

Paul and Sylvia have a whispered discussion where they spill the beans: they have been in cahoots the whole time, setting up Douglas. Getting rid of little Tessa so that after the marriage Sylvia is the only heir. But when Charlie got cold feet, they shot him... and used his death to frame Tessa. They hear a noise and realize that Grandmother Kilburn has been listening. Sylvia opens the gun case, grabs a pistol, and goes upstairs to murder the wheelchair bound old woman!

Grandmother Kilburn gets Sylvia to confess to everything one more time, then Sylvia points the gun at her and... Detective Gordon and Douglas and Betty rush into the room and overpower her, take the gun away and Gordon slaps the cuffs on Sylvia. It was a trap all along.

Review: Though better than the first two episodes, a bit of a slide back from our last episode. Though some real suspense is generated at the end when Sylvia goes up to murder Grandmother, much of the episode is more of a cozy murder mystery with some soapy elements.

There is kind of a Hitchcock reunion feel to the episode with Landis from NORTH BY NORTHWEST and TO CATCH A THIEF in the cast and John Russell behind the camera. Paul Henreid, Victor Laszlo from CASABLANCA, directs... and gives the episode some nice moving shots.

One of the problems might be the kid seems to be a “bad seed” in the story, but is shown to be more cute than threatening. When she stares out her window at Paul, she’s just not creepy enough. I’m sure part of this was probably network censors wanting them to tone it way down, but with Tessa portrayed more as a kid than a crazy psycho, the episodes loses a lot of impact. Though still a bit of a stumble from last week’s episode, we’re still on the right track. This one is much closer to a thriller than the other episode about a kid with a gun, and the story is tight and focused and easy to understand. All of the performances are pretty good, with the actor playing Paul exuding a weaselly menace even when he’s playing the brother of the victim. Landis is great as always, playing older than her age. Mona Freeman looks like trouble from the opening scene, and that might be a bit of a give away. She’s an obvious femme fatal in the role of faithful fiancĂ©... and we know she’s probably the guilty one from the first scene. Strudwick, who gets a shout out in some Elmore Leonard novel, was an over the hill pretty boy at this point in his career, but is handsome and dignified and really brings tears to your eyes in that father/daughter scene. That scene elevates the whole episode.



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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Film Courage: Writing From Desperation.

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. There were 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?


So you have quit your day job and given yourself a year or two years or whatever is in your bank account to make it as a professional screenwriter... and as that deadline gets closer and closer and you haven’t sold anything, panic and desperation begins to set in... and you realize that low budget horror always sells, and even though you absolutely hate horror, you decide to write a horror screenplay so that you can make enough money to avoid having to work for a living... Good idea?

Terrible idea.

One of the unwritten rules in screenwriting is to never write about screenwriters or writers or Hollywood - it’s incestuous and the general film audience usually can’t relate to the characters... and being a screenwriter is not a common fantasy, like being a superhero or being a tough guy or falling in love or any of the other things that are part of the “dream fulfillment” of the movies. But every once in a while, a Hollywood insider does a “tell all” movie about their experiences in the business (carefully turned into fiction) and sometimes those films are successful... like the great SUNSET BLVD () directed by Billy Wilder (a screenwriter) and written by Wilder and Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr. It’s one of the handful of Film Noirs about screenwriters, and a great example of what can happen to you when you are writing from desperation.

In the opening scene, screenwriter Joe Gillis is dead in the swimming pool of a decaying Hollywood mansion, then we flashback to how he came to be in this pool... A crappy Hollywood apartment where he is 3 months behind in his rent and about to be evicted, when there is a knock at the door - a couple of guys from the collection agency who have come to reposes his car, and would like him to hand over the keys. Joe tells them that he loaned his car to a friend who drove it to Palm Springs, sorry. Check the apartment garage if they don’t believe him. After they leave, he goes to the parking lot where he has hidden his car, and heads to the Paramount Lot where he has a meeting with a producer named Sheldrake, who might buy his script and get him out of this financial mess... He pitches the script to Sheldrake, who is skeptical - it doesn’t sound very good. Gillis lies, and says that 20th Century Fox is also interested in it. Sheldrake buzzes his Development Girl, who comes in with the coverage. “I covered it, but I wouldn’t bother. It’s from hunger. It’s just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” (That’s about 6 minutes into the movie - it doesn’t waste any time.) Gillis pleads with Sheldrake for any kind of assignment, he needs the money. But he is sent on his way...

Because when you write from desperation, it shows.

When you just hack out something for a buck, it shows.

When your heart isn’t in it, it shows.

One of those things that producers often say that they are looking for in a screenplay is “passion” - they want this to be the story that you have to tell (not just for money), the story that is a part of you, that has soul. All of the things that tend to disappear when you are writing from desperation, when you are writing from panic. Though the cliche of the serious writer in their garret with only beans to eat while they complete their masterpiece is romantic, in real life that’s no way to write anything that’s actually good. I have a Script Tip called “Projectors” about how whatever we write can’t help but show our feelings and attitude and emotions - our writing *is* who we are - so if you are a bitter angry person, you will be writing bitter angry stories that are probably not going to be entertaining.

After I sold COURTING DEATH to a company at Paramount and moved to Los Angeles, I had 2 years worth of rent and expenses plus a production bonus when they made the film. Except they didn’t make the film. I spent two years like Joe Gillis - holed up in my apartment writing screenplays - and had done absolutely no networking or work to get some other screenplay sold. I could have written all of those screenplays in my hometown of Concord, CA and saved a bundle! Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live. So when my two years of rent and expenses was almost spent, I went into panic mode and tried to figure out how to sell a screenplay. But I was trying to sell the screenplays that I had written from my heart and soul (even though they contained explosions) before I realized that I was running out of money. And I sold one, that managed to get made. And there were others that got me studio meetings and a couple that ended up optioned. I realized that I needed to spend more time on the business side of the screenwriting business and from that point on I actually became a professional screenwriter (as in, I continued to sell screenplays and land assignments).

Another writer I knew was not as successful, and called me in the middle of the night asking if he could crash at my apartment because he’d just been evicted and everyone else he’d called had turned him down. I didn’t know this guy very well, and was probably at the bottom of his list of people to call, and I turned him down as well. I realized that I never wanted to be in that position, and decided that if I was getting close to running out of money again, I would just get a day job. And at one point back in those early years, I had one - working in a wine shop in the Brentwood district, a few blocks from where O.J. Simpson would later murder his wife and her friend. Allegedly. But I realized that it was better for me to write with confidence and heart and soul instead of writing from panic and desperation.

Better for you to do that, too.

So if you give yourself some arbitrary deadline like 5 Years Until I Make It or whatever, don’t quit that day job! You can write 1 page a day and have 3 first drafts in a year... which is what I did when I was working at the warehouse. That’s how I wrote COURTING DEATH (which sold and got me to Los Angeles) and a bunch of other screenplays, some that sold, some that got me assignments, and some that nothing happened with. Lots that nothing happened with! That’s how screenwriting works - you will write a stack of screenplays in order to sell one or land one assignment. So you need something to pay the bills in the meantime.


You don’t want to be writing from desperation. It’s difficult to write when you are worried about financial problems, so it’s best to have an income while trying to break in. What you want is a “disposable job” rather than a career. A career will get in the way of your career! I always picked jobs that I wouldn’t want to do for the rest of my life, as an incentive to write and not do it for the rest of my life. If I got too comfortable at my day job, it became my real job. So I looked for jobs that would pay the rent, didn’t require me to think much (so that I could be figuring out scenes at work) and had regular hours so that I could plan my writing around it. I know people who work in advertizing and do other things that are writing based day jobs and that’s good news and bad news; the good news is that you are writing and getting paid for it, the bad news is that you might use all of your creative energy writing ad copy for a toilet cleaner. But if you have a steady and stable job that is paying the bills, keep it until you have made enough money to survive for at least a year...

And then don’t be afraid to go back to work. There’s no shame in not being evicted and panic calling some guy you know in the middle of the night to see if you can crash at his place, you know, just until you sell something.

But once you get to Los Angeles, there are some day jobs that put you into contact with peopel in the business, and are better than working in a warehouse. In the “Breaking In Bluer Book” I have 15 ways to make connections in Los Angeles, and some of them are day jobs like working as an Office Production Assistant, Reader, Writer’s Assistant or Personal Assistant, and a bunch of others. But jobs that put you in contact with people in the business can be helpful - I know a limousine driver who takes people back and forth to the airport (and other places) and often has celebrities in the back of his limo... and became a Film Producer because he managed to option a screenplay and sign some second tier movie stars from the back of his limo, and then give the package to a few investors and producers and distributors in the back of his limo. Only in Hollywood! But the kind of job that puts you in contact with upscale clients that is in that “disposable” classification is a great way to make connections while you are paying the rent, and because it’s disposable you can quit when you sell a screenplay and then come back to it later if you need to. That was part of the reason why I choose working in the wine shop in Brentwood - celebrities and producers buy wine and I might meet them. That was the plan. I learned that movie stars and producers had personal assistants that did all of their shopping for them... so that’s maybe a better job choice.

But aside from the “disposable jobs” that put you in contact with people in the business, there are also disposable jobs that you can just pick up and drop whenever you want, and those are also good if you have moved to Los Angeles and suddenly find yourself in need of a job to keep from worrying about paying the bills so that you can concentrate on your screenplay and put your heart and soul into it. Scott Frank, writer-director of QUEEN’S GAMBIT (based on the Walter Tevis novel), told me that he trained to be a bartender because that was a job that you could do anywhere and there was always someone hiring. Lots of actors and actresses wait tables between acting gigs, and Kathleen Turner went back to waiting tables after filming her star-making role in BODY HEAT... she has talked about waiting tables when the posters with her picture started going up around town. If you ask any waiter in Los Angeles what they are auditioning for, they will have an answer!


But the main thing to do is find a way to be able to focus on your writing, and not be worried about looming eviction like that writer who wanted to crash at my place just, you know, until he sold something. He never had another film credit, so maybe he never sold anything? He might have become like Joe Gillis in SUNSET BLVD - just writing ‘From hunger. It’s just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with,” and being so desperate and panicked that they are unable to put your heart and soul into your work.

You don’t want to just hack out what you think they want, because they don’t want hack work - they want something that you care about, that you are passionate about... that is also wildly commercial and will sell a bunch of tickets. What you write from hunger and desperation is going to smell of hunger and desperation - it’s not going to be that story that you needed to needed to tell. Later in SUNSET BLVD Joe Gillis bumps into that studio reader who trashed his script at a New Year’s Eve party, and she tells him that she read over all of the scripts he had submitted to the studio and found one with a great supporting character that she thought should have been the main character. Joe says that he knew someone like that character, and that subplot was personal and emotional to him... and the reader said that showed, and he should break off that character and write a new script about them... and he does. And that’s also what you need to do - find the stories that you are passionate about that also have commercial appeal and write those. Write the kind of movies that you regularly pay to see every week in the cinema - that you would stand in line to see! And you can’t write those from desperation! As writers, we are our “instrument” - we create from within, and it’s difficult to do that if you are worried about something else... so find the ways to be comfortable enough that you *can* create.

Good luck and keep writing!

- Bill


405 Pages!

*** BREAKING IN BLUE BOOK *** - For Kindle!

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

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

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

Thank you to everyone!


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Trailer Tuesday: DAVE (1993)

Director: Ivan Reitman.
Writer: Gary Ross.
Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, Ving Rhames, Kevin Dunn, Ben Kingsley, Laura Linney.
Produced by: Lauren Shuler Donner.
Cinematography by: Adam Greenberg.
Music by: James Newton Howard.

The Capraesque DAVE (1993) is about a nice guy who runs a temp employment agency and has a side job as a celebrity look alike for the President... and ends up becoming the temporary President when the real one goes into a coma. This is a sweet film that managed to do it all: it’s a great film about American Politics, it has traces of romantic comedy, it’s shows the corrupt back alley deals that go in on (a version of the real life Keating Five Savings And Loan Scandal), it’s about a regular guy taking on the establishment (like Capra’s MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) and it’s a fun comedy. Oh, and it’s probably the first film I ever noticed Ving Rhames in, because he steals the show as the President’s #1 Secret Service Agent. He has a line at the end that makes me tear up every time I see the movie, and the way that line is set up is a great lesson in screenwriting.

Crap, now I have to talk about that, huh?

First we need to have the story set up...

Okay, the story has Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), a nice guy who runs an employment agency and just wants everyone to have a job on Monday morning so that they can pay their rent by the end of the month, picked to be a “decoy President”... not by the Secret Service, but by the President’s cronies Bob Alexander (played by the always evil Frank Langella) and Alan Reed (played by comic turned actor Kevin Dunn). You see, the President has a girlfriend (played by Laura Linney before we knew her name!) and would like to slip away from the press to meet with her in a hotel. So while Dave is leading the Press in one direction, the real President (also Kline) is going in another direction. The President is stiff, overly serious, and a bit of a dick. Dave, while walking down a hallway in front of the press accidentally adds a little humanity to the President, and is sure they will be mad at him for doing that. You know, he could use the extra money being a Presidential decoy now and then.

But the President’s tryst with his girlfriend goes very very wrong about 15 minutes into the film... he has a stroke mid stroke and goes into a coma. Usually the Vice President would be sworn into office at this time, but Bob Alexander and Alan think V.P. Gary Nance (Ben Kingsley) is a “boy scout” who won’t go along with the President’s not so nice policies. So they hatch a scheme. *Dave* will continue to pretend to be President (but be less visible for a while), and they will keep him away from the First Lady Ellen (who sleeps in a separate room anyway) (played by Sigourney Weaver who really deserves more love - she’s great in everything), V.P. Gary will be sent on a tour of foreign countries to get him out of the way, then they will pin a scandal on the V.P. while he’s away to discredit him, accept the V.P.’s resignation, and then Dave will appoint Bob Alexander acting V.P... and then the President will “have a stroke” and Dave will go back to his temp employment agency as the real President will publicly go to the hospital and... well, Bob Alexander will take over as President and run the country instead of just being the puppet master behind the President. Great plan!

Except for Dave.

While pretending to be the President Dave is a nice guy who realizes the President’s policies are often not so nice. They often benefit the President’s cronies more than the American people. So when President Dave has a chance to do something good, he does it... making Bob very angry. Alan is the “pivot character” here who starts out as an antagonist but is won over by Dave and becomes his ally. Now that I’ve given away everything, let’s take a look at how it all works, starting with....


The opening scene has Marine One Helicopter landing on the White House Lawn, and President Mitchell (Kline) and his wife Ellen (Weaver) get off the helicopter. Mitchell is handed the leashes for his two cute little dogs, and they smile and wave past the press and into the White House.... Where Mitchell immediately throws the leashes on the ground and gets away from the dogs and his wife. An aid grabs the leash off the floor and takes away the dogs. President Mitchell and Ellen sleep in different bedrooms on opposite ends of a hallway....

Cut to...

The Grand Opening of a Car Lot, where an Announcer introduces the President Of The United States... who comes out riding a pig! It’s Dave Kovic (Kline) who looks like the President except for his hair style and color, he doesn’t wear glasses, and his general attitude - he’s a goofball. A cheerful and funny guy who does a great imitation of the President as he makes his pitch for the new car lot. Watching him is Secret Service Agent Duane (Ving Rhames - with hair) who later approaches Dave and explains that for security reasons they often employ a double for the President. Would he be interested in serving his country?

Kline does a great job of making these two very different characters - they walk and speak and move and thing differently (the thinking part is writer Gary Ross’ work). You believe that these are two different people. After Dave covers for President Mitchell so that he can boink his secretary Randi (there’s a name) and has his stroke, Secret Service Agent Duane doesn’t take him back home in the limo... he takes him to the White House, where he is needed to pass as the President while he is recovering from his stroke... and stay away from the First Lady!


One of the things that I find interesting is the connection between thrillers and comedies - the same plot can often work for either genre. WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S is a comedy about two guys and a corpse having to pretend that the dead guy is alive so they will not be arrested or worse. Is that a thriller or a comedy? Both Comedies and Thrillers often deal with secrets and plot twists and people pretending to be someone else. Don Winslow’s thriller “The Death And Life Of Bobby Z” is about a guy named Tim who resembles reclusive drug lord Bobby Z, who is sent undercover to pretend to be the drug lord and get information on the suppliers and everything else so that the FBI can bust everyone...

But suspense builds when the drug lord’s girlfriend shows up, along with some other people who might discover that he’s just a guy named Tim pretending to be drug lord Bobby Z... and then they will kill him. He can’t make a single mistake... and that girlfriend is a *serious* complication.

And that is the same plot as DAVE... with the First Lady as the drug lord’s girlfriend, who is going to know that he is not the President. There’s a sequence where Bob and Alan give Dave all of the background on the President, and “test” him on this knowledge until they are sure that he can pass as the President long enough for them to set all of the other parts of their plan to make Bob the President into motion... but he must stay away from the First Lady....

Which sets up a series of suspense scenes that create *laughs* as Dave tries to act like the very serious President Mitchell... even though he’s kind of a goofball.

There’s a great montage of chances for Dave to blow it - and he comes very close a few times. A photo op with babies, bowing to the Japanese Prime Minister, staff meetings, and a great set piece where he is testing some giant robot arms at a factory and ends up dancing and singing “Louie, Louie”. The political panel shows all notice the big change in him... and even though they are positive about these changes... it’s a big chance that they will discover that he’s not the President, just some guy named Dave.

And there’s a scene with the First Lady that is very tense... and Dave manages to fool her into believing that he is her husband. Maybe.

She sees him playing with the dogs on the White House lawn - rolling around on the grass with them... and that is not something that her husband would ever do.

The big scene is a visit with the First Lady to a homeless shelter for kids. In the limo on the way there, she asks why he bothered to come since he doesn’t care about the homeless or children. When she crosses her legs, her dress falls open a bit and he looks at her legs... great legs. But this is something that *Dave* would do - President Mitchell hasn’t been attracted to her for years.

At the Homeless shelter for children, while the First Lady explains the bill to help homeless children to the press, Dave notices a kid all alone in the corner and goes over to talk to him. This is a great scene - but also filled with suspense because this is not something that the President would ever do. Dave does some close up magic to entertain the kid, and then has a real heart to heart talk with him... and the First Lady notices all of this. She has started to catch on that this is not her husband...

Which builds suspense.


Bob Alexander forges the President’s *veto* on the Homeless Shelter Bill - kicking all of those kids out onto the street.

Dave is in the Presidential Shower, when the First Lady storms in - angry as hell. She wants the President to turn and face her - naked - in the shower. And Dave is sure that she will figure out he isn’t her husband. He’s naked. Standing before her. She is angry that after pretending to care about that homeless kid, he vetoes the bill and kicked him out onto the street....

Dave confronts Bob Alexander - who tells him that he is *not* the President. If Dave can find $650 million, they can have the Homeless Shelter.

Now, Bob Alexander has seriously underestimated Dave. $650 million is an impossible amount of money. Where will a guy who runs a temp agency and rides a pig pretending to be the President come up with that kind of money?

Dave calls his accountant friend Murray (Charles Grodin at his Charles Grodinest) and they look over the federal budget and find $650 million that is being obviously wasted.

The President calls a meeting, and Bob is angry - *he* calls the meetings, not this fake President. Dave goes over each of the obviously wasted budget elements - having to fight each department because wasting $32 million isn’t important. That kind of money is trivial. By the end of the meeting he has over $650 million... and reinstates the Homeless Shelter Bill. And all of the department heads feel *good* about this. As does Alan - Bob’s co-conspirator.... and that’s a big moment. Alan is now siding with Dave instead of Bob. Earlier I called Alan a “pivot character” - he starts out on one side and pivots to the other side... and this shows that he actually sees Dave as being a leader. Bob still thinks of Dave as that guy who rides the pig, but Alan sees him as a real President... even if he’s an impostor. There’s a great scene where Bob and Alan are on either side of a door - and Alan remains on his side. He doesn’t cross over to Bob’s side.

The First Lady lets Dave know that she knows he is not the President... and wants to know what happened to her husband? Dave and Secret Service Agent Duane go to the basement of the White House, where a make shift hospital has been set up... and the President is in a permanent coma. He is brain dead.

Dave fires Bob. Wait? Can a guy who impersonates the President fire people? Bob has created a Frankenstein’s Monster, who has turned against him. Because everyone believes that Dave is the President, they believe that he can fire Bob....

Bob begins his smear campaign against Vice President Gary being involved in a Savings & Loan Corruption Scandal... and adds the President, pushing for his resignation.

We get a great MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON scene as Dave and Vice President Gary have a private conversation, and Dave asks how Gary started out in politics. “I was a shoe salesman. Not very happy about it. One day, my wife says to me, ‘Why don't you try running for office? You know, you talk about it all the time. Why don't you just go do it?’ So I tell my boss I have a dentist appointment, and go down to the registrar of voters on my lunch break... next thing I know I'm a councilman. My wife was my campaign manager, we had a budget of two thousand dollars - with advertising.” Gary is a good guy, who got into politics to help people... grass roots, front line politician. Which is why Bob doesn’t want him to be President - he’s a “Boy Scout”.

Dave says that he will address Congress and the Senate over these allegations...

“I'm the President, and as they say, the buck stops here. So I take full responsibility for each one of my illegal actions. But that's not the whole story. I think the American people are entitled to the real truth.” He opens a briefcase and pulls out papers. “I have here evidence in the form of notes, letters, and written memoranda, proving that Bob Alexander was involved in each of these illegal acts, and in most cases planned them as well. Now, allegations of wrongdoing have also been made against Vice President Nance. Now, as this evidence will prove, at no time and in no way was the Vice President involved in any of this affair. Bob just made all that up. Vice President Nance is a good and decent public servant, and I want to apologize for any pain that this has caused him or his family.”

Dave continues....

“I’d like to apologize to the American people. You see, I forgot that I was hired to do a job for you. And it was just a temp job at that. I forgot that I had 250 million people who were paying me to make their lives a little bit better. And I didn’t live up to my part of the bargain. You see, I think there are certain things you should expect form a President. I ought to care more about you, than I do about me. I ought to care more about what’s right than about what’s popular. I ought to be willing to give up this whole thing for something that I believe in. Because if I’m not, then maybe I don’t belong here in the first place.”

Then, Dave has a stroke and falls to the floor. An ambulance takes away the President, and the Vice President is sworn in as President...


Which brings us to a great set up and pay off...

Early in the film, when Dave first gets the job as temp President, he asks the Secret Service Agent Duane (Ving Rhames) if it’s true that Secret Service Agents would take a bullet for the President. Rhames says he would gladly sacrifice his life for the President. Dave asks if Rhames would take a bullet for *him*? Rhames gives him a look. Dave realizes he’s in trouble if someone shoots at him...

This is a great gag.

But also sets up one of the last lines of the movie, in the ambulance after they have taken the Real President in a coma to the hospital, when Rhames says he’d gladly take a bullet for Dave. This is one of those big moments that comes out of nowhere and makes your eyes moist.

DAVE is one of those films that manages to be both sweet and savage at the same time. If you haven’t seen it, or just haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. President’s Day was yesterday, right?

- Bill

Friday, January 21, 2022

Fridays With Hitchcock: HITCH 20: ARTHUR (s3e4)

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 to plug my Hitchcock books...



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!


Only 125,000 words!

Accidentally still at the May Price of $3.99

Click here for more info!


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...


Click here for more info!


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.


Thursday, January 20, 2022


Dialogues With Death

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

Season: 2, Episode: 11.
Airdate: December 4, 1961

Director: Herschel Daughtery
Writer: Robert Arthur.
Cast: Boris Karloff, Norma Crane, Ed Nelson, William Schallert, George Kane, Jimmy Joyce, Estelle Winwood.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Bud Thackery.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Sound advice indeed. But rather the sort of thing one would expect to be offered by a psychiatrist to a patient who is still breathing in a surrounding such as these. But Pop Jenkins can hardly be described as a pillar of the medical profession with an upholstered office and a custom made contour couch. For his purposes however, I’m sure that he prefers the quiet dignity of the morgue and the solid support of the well refrigerated slab. I might also mention that he has one distinct advantage over his accredited colleagues. You see, his patients can never, never become violent. Imagine being able to carry on a tet0a0te with a cadaver. How fascinating. Well, tonight we have two stories for you about people who can do just that... and for reasons which must be apparent already, we call our play, “Dialogues With Death”. Our players are: Norma Crane, Ed Nelson, Estelle Winwood, and your obedient servant as Colonel Jackson Beauregard and Pops Jenkins. Now settle back, and listen, listen very carefully, you may find that you are one of the gifted ones.”

Synopsis: “Pops” Jenkins (Boris Karloff) who works the night shift at the city morgue gets a new customer - the millionaire night club owner Dan Gordon. Once the ambulance crew leaves, Pops pulls up a chair next to Gordon’s drawer and talks to the corpse... and he pauses and listens as if the corpse talks back. Is the old man crazy?

Three days later at the newspaper office: Editor Tom Ellison (Ed Nelson) and reporter Harry (George Kane) are trying to figure out what the next day’s headline might be. The police seem to have hit a brick wall when it comes to solving the Dan Gordon murder, and no news doesn’t sell papers. So Tom suggests they go down to the morgue and take some pictures of Gordon’s body and run them on the front page.

At the morgue they overhear Pops talking to a corpse...

While Harry takes his pictures, Tom asks Pops if he talks to all of his customers... and asks if Gordon might have mentioned who killed him. Pops says yes, but then regrets it. That was in confidence between Gordon and Pops. Tom presses Pops to the point that Pops accidentally blurts out that Professor MacFarland at the University shot Gordon. Now he has betrayed a confidence! Harry says that he took a picture of Professor MacFarland two years ago when he won a pistol shooting championship - MacFarland was an Army hero... but Harry is skeptical. Tom asks Pops why a Professor at the University would murder a night club owner? MacFarland’s sister Gloria was a singer at Gordon’s night club, and Gordon was attracted to her. Tom asks where the gun used to kill Gordon is, and Pops says it’s in the lower right hand drawer of his desk... but Gordon says he doesn’t blame the Professor for shooting him... and doesn’t want him arrested.

At Professor MacFarland’s Office: Tom and Harry ring the bell and MacFarland (William Schallert - Patty Duke’s dad on “The Patty Duke Show”) opens the door. They say they are working on a story about his sister, and they are invited in. MacFarland wants to know what this is all about, and Tom says that Don Gordon was murdered and they know that MacFarland’s sister had worked in his night club as a singer and was not treated well by the dead man. MacFarland asks them to leave. Now. He’s bust and doesn’t have time for this. Tom keeps pressing - says that he had heard MacFarland killed Gordon.

The Professor is about to physically remove them, when Tom picks up the picture of MacFarland’s sister from the top of the desk and tosses it to Harry, who moves to the other side of the room - MacFarland following to get the picture back. That’s when Tom goes to the desk, opens the drawer, and pulls out the murder weapon.

MacFarland wants the gun back, says he will call the police. Tom says go ahead and call them, then he and Harry leave with the gun.

Tom and Harry speed away on a foggy road at night. Tom believes this is the biggest story of their lives, they have the murder weapon and the killer is a prominent citizen whose sister was involved with a mobster. Harry doesn’t like any of this - how could Pop Jenkins know which drawer the gun was in? Tom turns a corner... and there is a man standing in the middle of the street!

Dan Gordon - who is dead!

Tom swerves the car to miss the man, but loses control and the car plows into the guard rails and goes off the side of the hill, smashing and crashing below...

Tom wakes up, crawls to the upside down car - Harry is trapped inside. He can’t get the door open to rescue him. Tom says he will go get help and climbs up the side of the hill to the foggy street. No sign of the dead man. No other cars on the road at this hour. He walks back to town. It’s a freakin’ long walk.

He walks past a few dark buildings towards one where the lights are on... the morgue. Opens the door and steps inside, and Pop runs up to him. Helps Tom over to a chair where he sits down and tells about the car wreck and finding the gun *exactly* where Pop said it would be - how was that possible? Tom wants Pop to explain how he could know where the gun was, and no “hocus pocus” about talking to the dead, that’s impossible...

That’s when the two ambulance crew guys who brought in Dan Gordon’s body enter, telling Pop that they have a couple of new customers for him. Pop tells Tom he’ll be back to answer all of his questions in a moment, goes to talk to the ambulance crew guys... who have put the two corpses in a couple of empty drawers. But they need him to sign for them. Pop signs for the two bodies.

When the ambulance guys leave, Pop calls Tom over to the drawers and pulls one open - providing all of the answers... under the sheet is Harry’s corpse. Killed in a car wreck. Tom is broken up, feels guilty. If only he had gotten help earlier. Then Pop pulls out the other drawer, pulls back the sheet covering the corpse, and calls Tom over. Tom looks down at his own corpse. When Pop pushes Tom’s corpse back inside the cooler, Tom is no longer there. Pop tells Tom that Gordon did not want the information about MacFarland and his sister becoming public, so he showed up on that foggy road to stop them... and caused their wreck. Then Pop gives advice on how to accept death.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Well, now that you’ve been exposed to an excellent example of communication with the dead, I wonder just how many of you believe that it can actually be true. What? You’re only half convinced? Well if what you are about to see fails to convince you completely than I’m afraid I must refuse to accept any responsibility whatsoever. Well, let us adjourn into a setting which in its own cheerful way bridges the gap between life and death every bit as effectively as the morgue. Morripo - a plantation which once wore the crown of antebellum splendor, but now rigor mortis has set in. It has been captured in the coffin of time and sealed in the shroud of the swamp. Yes, my friends, at Morripo you will be confronted with the final proof.”

Synopsis: Eccentric “Colonel” Beauregard Jackson Finchess (Karloff) and his equally strange sister Emily (Estelle Winwood) are at home in their rotting plantation one night when a car’s headlights shine outside. Someone is coming. Are they lost? Emily says she spoke with their nephew Charles, who is dead, just last night - he’s almost ready to continue his journey. There’s a knock at the door and their nephew Daniel Le Jean (Ed Nelson) and his wife Nell (Norma Crane) enter the room. Aunt Emily says, “We didn’t recognize you because you’re dead” cheerfully. “You were killed in a hold up in Chicago”, the Colonel adds. Daniel says the report of his death was a mistake, but he let it stand to escape from the police. The weird thing is that Aunt Emily insists that they are dead... she’s really weird. Daniel says he’s here to collect the money his brother Charles left him when he passed away... and to hide out from the police.

Daniel and Nell go up to his old bedroom, which is covered in an inch of dust and cobwebs - creepy! The weird thing here is that they don’t do anything a normal person would do in a dusty room. Nell doesn’t want to hide out in the old plantation for three weeks, she wants to split the minute they get his brother’s inheretence. D

aniel shows Nell around, pointing out the family mausoleum - the ground is too wet for burying people, so they all in the crypt. He tells a story about his grandfather Jules who was nailed into his coffin a bit prematurely. He and Aunt Emily went into the crypt, and when she had a “conversation” with his grandfather, Daniel closed the crypt door on her, locking her inside. Just a silly joke a kid would pull. Someone found Aunt Emily and let her out - and she said that Jules was already dead, told her so himself from inside the coffin. Since then she believes that she can communicate with the dead.

Daniel knows that his brother hid the money in the house somewhere, and wants Nell to keep the Colonel and Aunt Emily busy while he searches for it.

The Colonel gives Nell a tour of the house, showing her the paintings of all of the family members, including the great grandfather who was buried alive, and the grandfather who was buried with a telephone in his coffin, just in case.

Daniel finds a strong box in Charles’ room, and when he opens it - just papers but no money. Aunt Emily tells him the money is in Daniel’s empty coffin in the crypt - $50,000!

On that stormy night, Daniel and Nell enter the family crypt with tools to open the coffin and retrieve the $50,000. They search for his coffin, finding it behind a plaque that states the day of his death - a few days ago! Weird! They pry open the coffin... and it’s filled with money! But the crypt door slams shut... and they are trapped inside.

In the living room of the Plantation, Aunt Emily returns from a walk outside in the rain, where she has closed the crypt... just as young Daniel had done to her years ago.

Daniel and Nell try to pry the door, but the pry bar breaks. Meanwhile, the water in the crypt is starting to rise... will they drown in the crypt? Nell remembers the telephone in Daniel’s father’s coffin. They pry the lid off the coffin and search under the rotted corpse to find the telephone. Daniel calls and gets the operator, asks to be connected to the Sheriff, it’s a matter of life and death! Gets the Sheriff and tells him the whole story. The Sheriff says to be patient, he’ll get there. Daniel hangs up the phone....

In the Plantation... The Colonel hangs up the phone, and Aunt Emily says it will take Daniel and his wife a while to get used to being dead, then she will go visit them and have a little chat. But first, how about some music? The Colonel sits down the harpsichord and plays a song.

Review: A fun pair of weird tales and a chance for Karloff (and Ed Nelson) two play two very different roles. Maybe even three roles, since he plays the host as well. I probably said this in another entry, but since Karloff is such a good host it is easy to forget that he’s a great actor as well. Here, as “Pops”, he is kind of the groovy old man... and as Beauregard he is the old Southern gentleman. Seeing him back to back in these roles, you can see how - even with the larger than life personality he had at this point in his career - he can find ways to slip into the characters. Pops is a youthful old guy, and Beauregard is a dotty old guy. The characters seem to be different ages... yet played by the same guy. Karloff’s career was all about playing characters - often under a ton of make up - but here we have him play two different people with no make up. Just a beret in one episode and his gray hair in the other. His *walk* is different.

Also a great showcase for Ed Nelson - who you probably recognize from a couple of other episodes like CHEATERS, but also probably recognize from every danged TV show from the late 50s to the mid-90s. This guy was in everything! And versatile enough to keep coming back in some TV series like HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL as five different characters... in fact, five seems to be his magic number of TV shows. In Westerns he would play a military officer, a Mexican, a farmer, a gunslinger, a lawyer... and then on to the next western. He did a bunch of early Roger Corman movies, and his last role was in RUNAWAY JURY. 192 movies and TV series with around 5 episodes per TV series (except for the ones where he was a series regular). One of those “that guy” actors.

The first story has an amazing opening shot - from the shadow of the City Morgue door sign on the floor to a slow tour of the morgue with ambulance drivers delivering a corpse and when they leave Pops walks across the room and grabs a chair and sits next to the drawer door and has a conversation with the corpse as the camera dollies closer and closer to his face. A three minute shot! Amazing. There are several nice shots like this in the episode, and considering they had to shoot two different stories in two different locations, this is one of Daughrety’s better episodes.

The crypt in the second story is a great set - and as it fills with water, you wonder if they built it in a tank. One of the weird issues with that second episode is that the bed is covered with cobwebs and dust... but nobody shakes off the bedding and cleans off the cobwebs before they go to sleep. Eeeew! This sort of odd behavior almost sinks the story. Also, Norma Crane who gets top billing and has about a third as many credits as Nelson, including FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, over acts like crazy in the episode.

Two stories for the price of one, and both of them fun.

- Bill

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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Film Courage: When Should You Abandon A Screenplay?

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015. There were 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?


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

You are halfway through a screenplay and it just isn’t working... what should you do? If you finish it, it is just going to be a finished terrible screenplay - why waste the time on that when you could write something better?

We have all been there, and in the clip I say that you should just finish it, even if it stinks. Here’s why - if I have a finished screenplay that needs a serious rewrite, I am much more likely to do that rewrite. But if I have a half finished screenplay, that’s not a rewrite, that’s a write plus a rewrite... And I will never do that. You might be different, but that just seems like too much work to me. It’s not just rolling a boulder uphill, the boulder has sharp spikes coming out of it!

One of the problems with quitting a screenplay is that it becomes a habit - and I know many writers who have the first forty pages of dozens of screenplays, but not a single one that is finished. They are quitters. The minute it gets difficult, they quit. The minute they hit a rough patch, they stop writing instead of figure out the problem and get past it. Here’s the thing: there is no market for the first 40 pages of a screenplay. Nobody cares about the first 40 pages of a screenplay - that’s garbage. People buy *finished* screenplays. Finished. Finished and rewritten a couple of times until they are great. That’s what matters. Those 40 page misfires? Nobody cares. And these people quit after the first rough patch! Screenplays are filled with rough patches that you have to struggle with and stick out and figure out.


"Talent is a wonderful thing, but it won't carry a quitter," Stephen King.

When things get difficult or unpleasant, is your first thought to quit rather than stick it out and see if it gets better?

Do you quit writing a script if you get bored?

Do you quit writing a script if you get to that difficult part of Act 2 when it's all an uphill climb?

Do you have a bunch of half written screenplays and half read books and failed relationships and half finished projects?

Do you just quit at the first sign of difficulty or boredom when you try to watch a foreign film or something else that might take just a little work on your part?

Are you trying to avoid work?

Anything that might require a little effort on your part?

Are you a Quitter?

Hey, Bill, watching a foreign film with subtitles and a plot that only makes sense to French people isn't the same as writing screenplays!

I don't think so. I think it's all the same.

You are either a Quitter or you see things through to the end. You get over that difficult Act 2 hump. You do the next rewrite and the one after that and after that. You stick it out. The key to success is sticking it out. Not being a Quitter. Not giving up when things get rough. The things about those French films is that the first few can be work, but after a few you get the hang of it, you build up your “French Film Muscles” (which is different that Jean Claude Van Damm who is Belgian, like Hercule Poirot from MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) and it becomes less work with every French Film until you actually might enjoy watching French Films! So stick it out!

Now here's the thing: sticking it out is no guarantee of success. You could finish that screenplay (or French Film) and all of the rewrites and still not sell it or even get anyone to read it.

But Quitting? Guaranteed failure.


I know this from experience. I have not finished a script and had someone looking for just such a script... And I have also been the one with the finished script because I stuck it out when things got tough or the script started to bore me or it required that 4 Letter Word that everyone hates: WORK... and had the very script that someone was looking for. I also have watched a lot of French Films - LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL is a French Film. It has lots of explosions!

And I have learned that even when I stuck it out and the script still didn't turn out and I shelved it, I had still ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING. Finished the script. And many of those scripts I eventually figured out how to fix, and some sold and were made into films. Because I could rewrite a finished screenplay. That was doable. But a half finished script? That's not a rewrite, that's a *write*. I could still do that, but it's a double whammy. It's pushing the boulder uphill AND it's covered in sharp spikes. A finished screenplay is still in play - it's still *something*.

So step one is DON’T QUIT! Stick it out! Do the work, even when it becomes hard - finish the screenplay!


Okay, now that the Quitters have all left the room because I used that 4 Letter Word (“work”), what should you do when you hit that wall? When you are stuck and you want to quit? When you want to abandon the screenplay or novel or French film? Should you Phone A Friend or Poll The Audience or do some sort of 50/50 like on WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?

Nothing irks me more than people who hit a roadblock in their story and go to a messageboard to “poll the audience” for ideas on how to get past the roadblock. The reason why is because every story is it’s own story, the story that *you* are telling, and if you gave 10 writers the same basic story idea and they all wrote a story, you would end up with 10 different stories about 10 different things... because we all see a story from our own individual angle. It’s YOUR story and no one else can know what happens next. Sure, you might just be looking for random ideas from others that might spark something, but eventually you will get into a situation where you are working on an assignment against a deadline and there is no one else but you to spark those ideas. So figuring out how to get past the roadblocks in a story are things that you need to learn to do by yourself. Writing is a “by yourself” occupation (until you get the producer’s notes and the star’s notes and the director’s notes and the gaffer’s notes... but even then, they expect YOU to figure out how to implement them). You go into a room alone and write (even if it’s a Starbucks). So you will need to be self reliant and figure out how to spark your own ideas. You can’t Phone A Friend... but you can do some form of 50/50 - figure out the possible answers and then narrow them down. So here are five ways to get past the roadblock...


The most common solution - skip it until your brain is fully functioning, I outline my screenplays so I know that this scene made sense and worked in my imagination at some point in time... but there just isn’t enough coffee in the world to figure it out today. I could spend the whole day trying to figure it out... and maybe never succeed... or I could move on to the next scene and write that. But before I jump ahead, I leave myself a note...

When I'm stuck I look at the scene I'm working on and ask myself:
1) What is the purpose of this scene in the story?
2) What are the pieces of information this scene must communicate to the audience?
3) What does the protagonist (or antagonist) want in this scene?
4) What stops them from getting what they want? What is the struggle?
5) What will happen if they don’t get what they want or need in the scene?
6) What does the protagonist (or antagonist) *feel* in this scene?
7) What do I want the *audience* to feel in this scene?
8) What are the important events that happen in the scene (for later scenes)?
9) What happens at the beginning of the scene?
10) What happens at the end of the scene?

Those ten things are a “placeholder” for the scene when I move on to the next scene... and most of the time answering those ten questions helps me figure out the scene well enough to write it. It may not be the best version of the scene, but the best version will come in rewrites. I’m just trying to move forward instead of stack stuck in the mud. If I can’t figure out the scene, those ten things are the clues that will help me later, so that I know what the heck the scene was supposed to be when I come back to write it. The events at the beginning and ending of the scene are there to help me get on to the next scene - if I know the outcome of the scene and figure out a basic idea of how the scene will end, that helps me get into that next scene.


Often it isn’t the scene that I am trying to write that’s the problem, it’s that I have taken a wrong turn a few scenes back, and I need to back up to that fork in the road and take a different path. So begin by going back one scene and looking at the possible outcomes of that scene and the “trajectory” of the story due to those outcomes. If you had chosen one of the other possible outcomes, would you be back on the right track? Think through what would happen next if you had taken a different path... if one of the elements fro the ten things above for the previous scene had been different, where would you be now? What direction would you be headed?

Sometimes going back just one scene will show you where you took the wrong turn, sometimes you will have to go back a few scenes. Don’t delete the scenes that you have already written - the wrong turns that lead you to a different destination - save them in a file just in case this ends up being a wrong turn, too! But usually when you spot the wrong turn, you will see the route that leads to the destination and you will be back on the road and making good time again!


Often the reason for being stuck is that there are too many possible directions to take the story and you don’t know which is the best way... or none of the possibilities seem attractive. This is when I usually go to theme to try and break through the block. In the “Outlines & Thematic” Blue Book and several articles for Script Magazine, I show how every single element in a story is connected. Every character, every scene, every line of dialogue, everything is part of that whole... so when you get stuck if you look at what that connection is you might find your way out.

In one of my Script Magazine articles I look at ANTMAN & WASP and how each of the main characters is part of a troubled father daughter relationship, so if you were writing that story and got stuck, you might want to look at how the scene effects the farther-daughter relationship in that plot thread and what it’s doing to resolve that troubled father daughter element... and if the answer is “nothing” than maybe you have found the problem with the scene. Or maybe it has everything to do with that, but the scene writes that thematic element into a corner and you’re stuck... and have to rethink how the scene deals with that issue.

In a couple of Script Tips I look at writing my BLACK THUNDER screenplay for Showtime that was remade by Sony as a Steven Seagal flick a decade later - and how the theme was Concealment For The Purpose Of Deception - and how characters often conceal important information about themselves from others in order to protect themselves, but that concealment may be doing more harm than good. So if I got stuck on a scene when writing that script, I went back to that theme - what is the connection between this scene and concealment? Who is trying to conceal information and for what purpose? What would happen if that concealed information were discovered? And often this showed me the path for that scene. Hey, this was a movie about fist fights and things that blow up, but knowing that theme helped me get it written in 3 weeks to make a deadline. Whenever I got stuck I had a key to the story that might open that door that got me through the scene. So look at your theme - since it secretly connects everything, how is this troublesome scene connected?


Story is conflict, and the antagonist (or force of antagonism) is the source of that conflict. Sometimes you get stuck because the conflict has dissipated and there is no strong reason for the story to continue. Nothing is driving the story anymore, so it’s out of fuel and coasting... and you need a conflict fill up.

This can be caused by a week central conflict, or an unmotivated antagonist, or a protagonist that isn’t part of the conflict (on the sidelines and every once in a while the conflict touches them, but they aren’t the target of the conflict). Those are serious structure issues, and though I don’t usually suggest rewriting until you have finished the first draft, this may be a case where you want to do back and solve the basic structure issues before moving forward. But maybe if you know what the problem is, you can keep moving forward just by figuring out how you will fix it and imagining that you have made that fix earlier so that you can get back on track with this scene. Many problems are based in basic structural issues and the protagonist not being the target of the conflict, which explains all of those books on structure and the general focus on structure in screenwriting.

Connected to this is the External Conflict. We are writing SCREENplays so we need conflicts that show up on screen. If your conflict is internal and emotional and can not be seen on the big screen, that will often lead to a dead end or nothing actually driving the story. I like to think of stories as a Protagonist must resolve an emotional conflict in order to resolve a physical conflict or else something bad will happen. So you may have the emotional conflict (which is internal and can not be seen on screen) but your story may have a weak physical conflict and no “or else” factor... two things that the antagonist brings to the story. So the reason for your story stalling out might be a weak antagonist or a passive antagonist or no antagonist at all... and usually the antagonist drives the story. They bring the conflict.

Conflict is the fuel that runs your story - the antagonist (or force of antagonism) is the source of that conflict... so if you have lost sight of the antagonist and the conflict, your story can hit a roadblock. You may think that it’s you as a writer that’s out of gas, but ot’s your story that is out of gas. Go back and fill the tank! (Or charge the battery, if you drive an electric story.)


The two things that drive a story are the antagonist who brings the conflict and the protagonist whose need forces them to deal with that conflict. So you might be stuck because your protagonist has no strong need. Just as a passive antagonist can cause your story to stall out, so can a passive protagonist. This is the flipside of the antagonist issue and often pops up in action and thriller and horror screenplays where the plot is driving the story. The protagonist can end up uninvolved in that story and you wonder why they heck they are putting up with all of these problems? Why don’t they just go to a summer camp other that Crystal Lake? If the protagonist doesn’t have a strong enough need to continue down the road that puts them in danger, you will be constantly trying to find excuses for them to keep going... and will run out of excuses the way a story without a strong antagonist runs out of gas (or electricity) and just peters out.

So the problem might be the Protagonist’s Need. If they don’t have one and are just a pawn in the story, that’s a problem. If they have a weak need (“But I want to go camping!”) that is also a problem. You may need to rethink your protagonist and find the reason why they MUST keep going down the conflict road no matter how bad it gets. Again, you can either go back and fix this or move forward and finish the first draft and then go back and fix it. There are writers who can get stuck in a GROUNDHOG DAY loop rewriting the first part of a screenplay forever without ever moving forward... and if you suspect that might be you, it’s better to finish the screenplay before going back to fix problems.


I think the most important thing is to put in the WORK and figure out how to get past that roadblock and reach the end of your screenplay. Get it finished. After you type FADE OUT it may still be a screenplay that doesn’t quite work, but it’s a *finished* screenplay and you are more likely to come back to it later. I have a bunch of finished screenplays that don’t quite work, and now they are “shelved” while my subconscious figures out the problems... and it usually does! I had a script with a great high concept that hit a few snags along the way - it was a mystery and only had one suspect - so when I finished it I shelved it until I could figure out how to solve that problem. A couple of years later I was grocery shopping or something and figured out how to solve the One Suspect Problem... and furiously jotted notes and then did the rewrite. But I’m not sure my subconscious would still be working on that problem had I not finished the screenplay... if I didn’t have all of that WORK invested in that story.

Yes, you will sometimes get halfway through a screenplay and you want to quit. You get partway through a foreign film and you want to quit. You get halfway through some classic novel and you want to quit...

But if you do, you are a QUITTER!

You are avoiding the HARD WORK required to reach the goal and ACCOMPLISH SOMETHING! You are like a marathon runner who just gives up! Hey, man, this running stuff is hard, I'm just gonna quit and grab a beer...

Don't be a QUITTER!

Don’t abandon that screenplay!

You can’t Phone A Friend or Poll The Audience... you just have to do the hard work and figure it out on your own. And you can do that! It’s not easy, and you may want to quit every once in a while... but don’t! Just work hard until you break on through to the other side of that roadblock! You can do it!

Good luck, and keep writing!

- Bill






Your story is like a road trip... but where are you going? What's the best route to get there? What are the best sights to see along the way? Just as you plan a vacation instead of just jump in the car and start driving, it's a good idea to plan your story. An artist does sketches before breaking out the oils, so why shouldn't a writer do the same? This Blue Book looks at various outlining methods used by professional screenwriters like Wesley Strick, Paul Schrader, John August, and others... as well as a guest chapter on novel outlines. Plus a whole section on the Thematic Method of generating scenes and characters and other elements that will be part of your outline. The three stages of writing are: Pre-writing, Writing, and Rewriting... this book looks at that first stage and how to use it to improve your screenplays and novels.

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