Friday, June 21, 2024

Fridays With Hitchcock: Organic Storytelling

Jimmy Stewart in REAR WINDOW uses a camera to defend himself... He's a professional photographer, what else would he use?

I have a whole article on this, written for Script Magazine about a decade ago, called Hitchcock's Chocolates (now a chapter in one of my Hitchcock books) that gets into using the character and story to find all of the details of your screenplay. It always goes back to character - any question or problem you are having with your screenplay - think character, theme, story... and you will find the answers.

- Bill

Of course, I have my own books focusing 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

Click here for more info!


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USA Readers 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 52 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.

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Canadian Folks Click Here.

Thursday, June 20, 2024



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

Season: 2, Episode: 19.
Airdate: January 29, 1962.
Director: John Brahm.
Writer: Donald S. Sanford based on the story by August Derleth.
Cast: Patricia Barry, John Baragrey, John Fiedler, Herbert Rudley, Linda Watkins, Pamela Searle.
Music: Morton Stevens - though it's really Jerry Goldsmith's score for GUILLOTINE.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Well, that was a gruesome surprise even for a hangman. A stunningly beautiful courtesan is dropped into the pit, and a moment later, her executions discover a withered hand, claw-like, clutching a wig. Well, of course the noose usually does have a disastrous effect upon the human body, but nothing like this. (Picks up wig) How strange. I should think it must have something to do with this wig. There is something weird and frightening about it. Look my friends, look! It’s only clothe and hair. Lustrous red hair to be sure, but hardly very mysterious. At least, that’s what the characters in tonight’s story thought. Unfortunately for them. My I introduce Sheila Devore, played by Patricia Barry. George Machik, played by John Baragrey. Herbert Bleake, played by John Fiedler. Arabella Foote, played by Linda Watkins. And Max Quinke, played by Herbert Rudley. We call our story A Wig For Miss Devore, and naturally I refer to this particular wig. Now my friends, you know all about the magic that the sorcerers of the silver screen put on film for your entertainment. Well tonight, as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, you will learn that sorcery can be performed without celluloid. Behind the cameras, and perhaps even in your own livingroom.”

Synopsis: In mid-1700s England, a beautiful young woman is escorted to the gallows. No crowd of onlookers, no official doctor to pronounce the death, this execution will be in private - because this woman has been accused and convicted of witchcraft. Part of that witchcraft charge against Meg Payton (Pamela Searle) includes the murder of six men. The Man whose job is to remove the corpse after the hanging wants Payton to remove her wig - even if they were to execute the King himself, he would have to remove his wig. She refuses, and the Hangman allows her to keep it - she won’t be needing in a couple of minutes. As the Hangman prepares to pu the noose around her neck, she says: “Your hands are trembling, let me help you,” and slides the noose around her own neck. As the Hangman prepares to pull the lver, she says, “Meg Payton does not die here.” Then, the trap door opens and she does the long drops with the hard stop. Dead. The Man goes down to collect the body... and screams! The wig has fallen off, and Meg Payton has become a withered old monster.

1962 Los Angeles: Blonde Bombshell way past her pull date Miss Sheila Devore (think Marilyn Monroe if she had made it to her mid-forties - but she died 7 months after this episode aired) thinks that she has found the perfect screenplay for her comeback - the epic biography of witch Meg Payton who was hung 200 years earlier. Her loyal assistant, Herbert Bleake (the always great John Fiedler who gets a mention in our entry for “Yours Truly Jack The Ripper”) tries to talk her out of it - it’s an expensive period piece. Maybe she should look through all of the scripts one more time, just to be sure? It’s obvious that Bleake is secretly in love with her... but too shy and mousy to say so. Bleake used to be a studio production accountant who worked on all of her films. As her assistant, he knows that she’s too old for the role and the studio would never spend that kind of money on a movie starring her - his job is to always protect her. But she *insists* on doing the witch script, and for authenticity (and publicity) wants to use the actual wig that Meg Payton wore. Studio Chief Max Quinke has been regularly sending her flowers and begging for her to come back to work since she retired... Bleake says he will go to the studio and set up the deal.

Studio chief Max Quinke (Herbert Rudley) says no way! How old is she? It’s alluded to that Quinke had an affair with her... when she was younger. Bleake says Quinke has been sending her flowers regularly since she retired begging her to come back, and this script is her comeback. Quinke hasn’t been sending her flowers all of those years - Bleake has. You see, as production accountant, Bleake knows that when big star Devore and producer Quinke and director George Machik formed a production company together and made all of Devore’s biggest hits, they had him do some “Hollywood bookkeeping” so that Quinke and Machik could steal all of the profits from 32 of her films. Millions. So it would be to Quinke’s advantage to greenlight Devore’s comeback instead of deal with the police and IRS and probably end up in prison.

And that is how film deals are made.

The Comeback: On the set, director George Machik (handsome John Baragrey) warns the crew to behave when Miss Devore comes on set - she has been retired for a long time, and this is her comeback, and she may have... aged.

But when Devore comes out, dressed in the costumes and Payton’s actual red wig, she’s young and hot! She looks 25 years old! And she acts the hell out of her scene - she’s still got it! Watching from the side-lines is Hedda Hopper inspired gossip reporter Arabella Foote (Linda Watkins), who can’t believe this is the middle aged Miss Devore. Devore has been in seclusion since her retirement, but she must have had a bunch of face lifts to look this good. Foote is the villainess of the story - trying to find the secret of Devore’s good looks. She’s in the background of almost every scene.

After the day’s shooting, director Machik hits on Devore - they had an affair when she was younger as well. Maybe they could go out to dinner tonight? Devore says she can’t - there’s a party at studio chief Max Quinke’s mansion in Hollywood. Machik wasn’t invited to the party? Machik tells her that Quinke stole from her - skimmed the profits on 32 of her films. Though Machik knew about this, he was afraid to go up against the powerful producer. Maybe Devore should ditch Quinke’s party and go to dinner with Machik?

Devore arrives at Max Quinke’s marvelous mansion for the party... and she is the only guest! Quinke wants to rekindle old flames. His mansion has an indoor fountain, and he puts on music so that they can dance around the fountain. Quinke asks her why she is still wearing the wig after the day’s filming is over. Has she gone method? He’d love to see her beautiful blonde hair....

Meanwhile, assistant Bleake knocks on the door of the mansion, which is opened by a butler. Bleake has a letter that he must give to Miss Devore - very important that she read it. The butler turns him away - he’s not going to interrupt his boss when he’s trying to score.

Quinke keeps asking Devore to take off the red wig... and he gets his wish. Quinke screams in horror! She tells him she knows about skimming the profits from the 32 movies, then pushes him back... into the fountain... where he hits his head and drowns.

We never see Devore’s face without the wig - but the arm that pushes Quinke was withered and old, as if the energy keeping Devore looking young was sucking years off her life. Devore puts the wig back on... just as director Machik shows at the mansion.

Devore tells him that she and Quinke were dancing and he tripped and hit his head on the fountain. Machik says that she shouldn’t be involved because Quinke stole all of that money from her - that can be misconstrued as a motive. Also, that they need a way to keep Machik from being forced to testify against her if it ever comes to that... hey, why don’t we get married? A wife can’t be forced to testify against her husband. She agrees.

Last Day Of Production: They film the last scene of the movie, as Devore playing witch Payton is lead to the gallows, and tells the Hangman, “Your hands are trembling, let me help you,” and puts the noose around her neck. I love how we go back to the opening scene of the episode, here. After filming the scene, it’s a wrap - and the party begins!

Bleake shows at her dressing room with the letter, and she tells him that she doesn’t want to read it. When he keeps pushing, she breaks his heart by saying that she never really cared about him. He was just someone who did things for her. He leaves, practically in tears.

Gossip columnist Foote follows Bleake to a bar, and gets him drunk. A shoulder to cry on. He shows her the letter from the museum where they got the wig, claiming that it is cursed - and the previous owners murdered men who did them wrong. Foote leaves so fast Bleake’s head almost hits the bar when she pulls her shoulder away.

In director Machik’s luxurious penthouse apartment, the newlywed couple discuss their future together on the balcony overlooking the city of Los Angeles at night. Now that the film has wrapped, he wants her to take off that silly wig. She tells him she knows that he was part of embezzling profits from those 32 films, and now that they are married, she can’t testify against him on embezzlement charges. He tries to talk his way out of it, he’s good at that... but she takes off the wig. We don’t see her face, but we see his. He screams in horror and steps away from her - over the balcony railing and all the way down to the street. SPLAT! Now she has inherited all of the money he embezzled.

THE LEGEND OF MEG PAYTON is a huge hit - lines circling around the block. Devore is a big star again, sought after by every producer at every studio.

In her dressing room, a burley security guard catches ex-assistant Bleake trying to break in. She tells the security guard to let him in, and Bleake tells her about the cursed wig. He doesn’t care that she broke his heart, he just wants to help her. He truly cares about her. But she doesn’t want his help - she has everything she wants. “After a while, the wig grows on you.”

At The Wrap Party For The Next Film, Devore is twisting the night away with a much younger man. Gossip columnist Foote and a Photographer watch from the sidelines, and she explains her plan to him: she is going to enter Devore’s dressing room and confront her with the letter from the museum about the cursed wig. At a certain point, the photographer bursts into the dressing room and takes a picture of Devore without the wig...

In the dressing room, Foote confronts Devore with the letter. The wig has dark, demonic powers. Foote accuses Devore of murdering the two men, and who knows how many others, to get to where she is now. “A frowsy old bag puts on a wig and overnight mind you, becomes a ravishing beauty.” Foote manages to grab Devore’s wig and rip it off her head. Devore screams. The photographer breaks in and snaps a picture. Devore runs out of the room with a towel over her head - hiding her face. Leaving the wig on the floor.

Bleake (and everyone else) chases Devore through the studio lot between sound stages. She turns and one point, sees Bleake behind her, and tells him, “Don’t let them see me!” Bleake tries to help her get away, but she trips and falls and is surrounded by everyone else. They turn the lights on her - exposing her withered, ugly face. She looks at least 100 years old. She screams and dies in Bleake’s arms... and he still loves her.

In the dressing room, a plain-jane Maid sees the wig on the floor and snatches it up. When no one is looking she puts it on and looks at herself in the mirror - a hot young woman looks back at her. The end.

Review: An episode that takes on the issues of Ageism, sexism, and #MeToo... in 1962?

After getting off to a rocky start - I sure hope that Pamela Searle was the producer’s girlfriend and that she wasn’t chosen for her acting abilities - this turns into a great episode that combines elements of Grand Guignol and Hollywood (a marriage made in heaven, or maybe hell). This episode is fun, and skewers movies from Hollywood bookkeeping to more serious subjects like women being aged out of the business while older men are promoted. We’ll get to the serious subjects in a moment, because I think that’s what makes this one topical today.

But first, an appreciation for Patricia Barry, who only has 145 credits and was working up until 2014 - two years before her death at 93 years old. Her first film credit is in 1946 (she only made 6 films that year) and she’s in freakin’ SEA OF LOVE, one of my favorite films. She’s in a couple of other episodes of THRILLER, but this is an amazing performance. She plays both versions of Devore, and they are completely different people with completely different looks. She was 40 years old when she made this episode - basically the older Miss Devore - but perfectly played the young hot Miss Devore. Here’s the thing about those 145 credits on IMDB - her three episodes of THRILLER count as 1... and this episode alone is like playing two roles. She seemed to be one of those great dependable actors that you could hire for 6 films in the same year and she did her best work in all 6. Once TV became popular, she was doing multiple episodes on multiple shows within the same year - so she was dependable and professional. This episode made me want to binge watch a whole bunch of movies and TV stuff that she was in, just to see all of the different characters she played - because even if all of those 1946 movies were playing the love interest, I’ll bet they were different people. Her work here is great, and there could not be an episode without someone of this talent playing Devore.

There is a whole subgenre of horror movies about people who have been taken advantage of by others getting their revenge through some sort of supernatural method that they seemingly can not control. From Oliver Stone’s THE HAND (where Michael Caine’s hand lost in a freak accident tracks down those who wronged him) to CHRISTINE (which may have introduced the self driving car) and lots of other movies feature the Dr. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE tale with a supernatural item like Miss Devore’s wig. Spielberg did a similar episode - though nuttier - on his AMAZING STORIES show in the 1980s called HELL TOUPEE and written by a couple of 12 year olds (seriously) about a hairpiece that gets revenge for the meek fellow who wears it. DEVORE does a great job of taking a powerless person and giving them the power that they need... at a price.

Okay, time to talk about that powerless person - and why this episode resonates sixty years later. Back in 1962, this was an episode about Hollywood (and the world’s) seeing women as second class citizens and how agism in Hollywood only matters if you are female. No one wants to hire Devore because she’s old... but they regularly hire male actors who are even older. When you watch a movie today and the male lead is over sixty and the female lead is half that age, something is wrong. Why do older actors get to keep working and older actresses become unemployed? Take your favorite movie from the 1980s - is the male lead still starring in movies? Is the female lead? It’s strange that Stallone still gets to play ROCKY and RAMBO, but how many 73 year old actresses are starring in movies? Sharon Stone is my age, in great shape, and still working... in small supporting roles (she steals the show in DISASTER ARTIST). Why isn’t she *starring* in big movies like (over a decade older) Stallone is? Hollywood has an ageism/sexism problem... and this episode of THRILLER is all about that. Devore is over the hill and un-hireable in her 40s. It always amazes me when an issue like this is explored on a TV series in the 1960s and is still with us today. Is nobody paying attention?

The other issue this episode explores that is still with us today is #MeToo - and maybe it ties in to the ageism/sexism thing... and that bad taste joke I made about the actress who played the witch being someone’s girlfriend. The two powerful men in this episode each had a previous relationship with Devore when she was a young, hot, actress. Though this episode never mentions casting room couches, both men had no problem sleeping with Devore when she was young... but now neither wants to touch her... until they see her in the wig. Then, they are all over her. Both men not only make passes at her, they seem to feel like it’s part of their job description to sleep with the talent. They are powerful men, and that gives them the right to make these advances. Compare those characters with Bleake her assistant - who is in love with her and even has power (the knowledge of the embezzling) but never pushes Devore into any sort of relationship. The moment Devore shows up at producer Quinke’s mansion and she is the only guest, that’s a #MeToo moment. He has lied to her with only one intention. Again, here’s a 60 year old TV episode that focuses on an issue that is still with us today. How many years have there been jokes about the casting room couch? We knew that was wrong all of those years - that’s at the core of those jokes, yet did nothing about it. Being a leacher was never a good thing. The plot of this story has these powerful men taking advantage of a woman - by ripping her off, but also by trying to control her, and by using their power to sleep with her. Yeah, this is a revenge story, so she goes along with their seduction to kill them, but the minute both the producer and director see that she is still hot - they are all over her. Assistant Bleake is kind of the “control” in this experiment - he never stops helping her. Even at the end, he is the one protecting her while all of the others *want* to out her as a disfigured old hag.

If you think older movies and older TV shows didn’t get “political”, it’s just because you were too young to notice... and maybe have a Warner Brothers movies deficiency.

But aside from exploring a couple of issues that I’m sorry to say are still with us today, this is a FUN episode.

It grows on you.

Next time, another horror tale - this one about a killer scarecrow.

- Bill

Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Elitism & Experience

From the beginning of 2011...

A few weeks ago John August had a post on his blog that got a rise out of me.

John wondered if the blog had become too advanced for a beginning writer, so he decided to read through his mail to see if he was too “inside baseball”... and printed a note from a writer that asked all kinds of stupid questions and then made fun of the writer. Ridiculed the dude. I posted in the comments section that I thought that even though many of the guy's questions could have been answered by spending some time searching John's site – at least the guy was asking questions, right? Yes, he probably should have searched the site first. Yes, he probably should have done a better job of Googling. But John could have guided him instead of made fun of him.

And on Done Deal Pro I said basically the same thing: Lots of new writers don't know where to begin, they Google “How do I write a screenplay” and find a website and don't know the first thing about screenwriting so they don't know what to search for – they don't even know what a screenplay consists of. They don't know what to Google.

In one of my favorite films IN A LONELY PLACE, a screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart says that people don't know screenwriters exist – they think actors just make up their lines... and when they become stars, they do. And that's where a lot of new writers are – what's on the page? Everything? If you just have a great idea – can you sell that? If you need an agent, can you tell me where to find one? On Done Deal Pro we regularly see new writers ask these questions and many more. And people on DDP ridicule them and make fun of how naive they are... but they also answer the questions and point them to places where they can read real screenplays and explain how the whole agent thing works. My theory is help them... then make fun of them.

Here's the thing – to me all of these questions sound silly. They sound like things people should just be able to figure out on their own, right? Things they could just find online, right? But when they land at someplace like John's site or DDP – they *have* looked online and ended up there asking questions. Things that we see as obvious. But that's because we forgot when we were them. Now that we know stuff, we think everyone else does!

Plus, there's that pecking order thing – I did a blog entry on that, and I think it's going to come up in this one, too. Nobody knows everything, and all of us are still learning and have things that we need to learn. Now, we can look at those who know less than us and make fun of them, or we can give them the information they need and send them in the right direction.

Or both.

The thing about writers is that many of us are smart asses and are just waiting for someone to say something that's a set up for our joke. I know I am. Yes, this makes me a partial asshole, but I also answer the questions so I figure I kind of earn my assholiness. But, if you just trash the person without helping them, you're building up some negative karma and eventually you will be the person who doesn't know something and someone will make fun of you. All of us are stupid about something.


One of the interesting things in life is how various different things happen at the same time... and all seem to add up to something larger. These random things are connected – which is just plain weird. Plate of shrimp. If I were crazy, I would imagine a giant conspiracy out to get me. But instead, it's just life.

Before the John August blog post, two other things happened back-to-back that connect to the concept of know-it-alls and know-nothings and screenwriting.

There's a message board I frequent that is filled with new writers – and many of them suffer from being overly artsie. This is a common thing. Many new writers think that Hollywood makes all of those remakes and sequels and comic books movies because there is a shortage of quality original screenplays... and *they* have the ability to write those brilliant screenplays!

In fact, when they compare the kind of crap Hollywood makes to what they are capable of, it's obvious that they are geniuses and the people who work in Hollywood now are all morons. Many of these folks believe that film is art, and Hollywood would make nothing but art movies if they had enough great artsie screenplays. Every film would be TREE OF LIFE, if they had a couple hundred similar (genius) (artistic) screenplays.

This is not true.

Hollywood makes movies that will attract a mass audience. That mass audience is more interested in being entertained than seeing some great piece of art... check out the grosses for this year's Oscar winner... and TREE OF LIFE while you're at it. There was a recent article on how the general public no longer goes to see the Best Picture Winner – they don't care about it and don't relate to it anymore. The “Oscar bounce” is gone! They've worked all week long and this film is their escape from all of the crap of real life – they may want to laugh so hard they pass out. What makes them laugh that hard may be the bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER.

That makes that bathroom scene from DUMB & DUMBER great screenwriting. I know that makes some of you think I'm crazy or a massive hack – but do you know how hard it is to find something that makes 60 million people around the world laugh? That is the art of screenwriting – making 60 million people around the world feel something. Some emotion. That may be fear from a horror movie or love from a romance or excitement from an action film – but finding that universal thing... and 110 minutes of those universal things – is so difficult that Hollywood pays great money if you can do that. They pay lots of money if you can entertain lots of people. The fewer people you entertain, the less money you get. Kind of trickle down.

Now, that doesn't mean that art films are bad, or TREE OF LIFE is bad, or PRECIOUS or A SERIOUS MAN or HURT LOCKER are bad... just that they may be really tough screenplays to get anyone to read, let alone buy and produce.

Well, on this message board full of artsie new writers a few people posted some stuff that was completely naive... and someone posted a well thought out reasoned response explaining why their theory of how Hollywood worked was incorrect and something an outsider might believe. Here's the amazing thing – this guy who posted has been nominated for awards, wrote a great critically acclaimed film which you have all seen, that got him a gig writing a couple of big Hollywood films you have also seen, and recently wrote critically acclaimed film that I really love and own on DVD. Dude is a great writer. He was lurking. He de-lurked to help this writer...

And got crapped on.
And argued with.

Nobody knew who he was. They thought he was just some other idiot hack like me who was defending Hollywood films. They trashed whatever he said. Now, I knew who he was from another board, but none of these jokers even tried to figure out who he was... or just respect what he said. The guy was using logic and reason and the people fighting him were defending their position without ever acutally *thinking*. They were too busy arguing with him.

For me, the amusing thing about this was that this guy *was* a legitimate artist as a screenwriter. And he was explaining that *in his experience* commerce was still a major issue and you will have to find the way to sell your screenplay. To businessmen. Who want to make money.

Okay, everyone on this board knows who I am – I do not lurk. I jump in to the discussion, with a different side than the famous writer. Based on my actual experience in the business – I used some real examples both from my stuff and some other well known and easy to Google examples. And my experiences lead me to very similar conclusions as the other writer. Because that's kind of the way things are. From the outside you might think "If only Hollywood had 200 TREE OF LIFE scripts they would make 200 films like TREE OF LIFE." From the inside, you know that a film like TREE OF LIFE is hell to get off the ground... and no one in Hollywood really wants a screenplay like that. In fact, TREE OF LIFE was not made by Hollywood!

If you were to take a hundred professional writers, we would all have similar experiences with slight differences. If you take 100 people who have gone to the DMV and taken a driving test, the main points will all be the same but there may be some individual differences due to that handful of variables there are. So I jump in and basically agree with the other writer – and so do the handful of other pros on the boards...


And now we have an interesting dichotomy – those who earn a living writing screenplays vs. those who do not. Those with experience in the business and those who do not have experience in the business. The working writers are saying “this is the way it really works” and the new writers are saying “no – it doesn't work that way”. When I say, “Hey, I've been doing this for a while, that really is the way it works.” And the professionals are branded “elitists” for saying that “our way” is the one that works and “their way” doesn't work.

This confused me.

I thought elitists were all about having power over others and excluding them... when the reason we were there giving this advice was to *include* these folks – to show them the secret way into the business. To help them. “You know that wall? There's a doorway through it over here!” But it seems that knowing what you are talking about, having actual experience, is a big negative thing.

Who knew?

The issue becomes facts vs. opinions – and that's crazy. But this seems to be something that isn't just on screenwriting messageboards, the whole country seems to think that a fact is the same as an opinion. That they are equal. If 99% of scientists think the world is round and 1% think it's flat – those 1% are “equal” to the 99%. Crazy! That 1% are the lunatic fringe. In science as in anything else there are always a couple of nutjobs... but the *majority* of people who know what they are talking about agree with each other... and 1% is *not* equal to 99%. Those are *not* two equally valid viewpoints – because at the end of the day the majority rules.

Except, when you are in that 1% you'd much rather believe that it's equally valid to believe the Earth is flat and the space program is a conspiracy and they put something in our milk as children to make us see that curve on the horizon...

And that's *science* - when you're discussing screenwriting and there's an art component and as many different definitions of “good movie” as there are people? More difficult to even agree on what is a “fact”!

But add to this – screenwriting is strange in that it is both art and commerce wrapped into one. Sure – there are arthouse indie films, but even those get some form of distribution because someone thinks they will make money. They are more of a niche thing – and aimed at being popular with that niche. If you plan on *selling* a screenplay then it is a commercial endeavor – not just for you but for who you sell the screenplay to... and for the screenplay itself. There are so many elements of the *craft* of writing that tie into the commercial aspects that you can't really talk art and craft without at least touching on the commercial part. And, on a messageboard filled with artsie types, bringing up the money part brands you a sell out.

On another board there is an intelligent, articulate, artsie screenwriter guy who makes great arguments in favor of seeing screenwriting as an art. I often argue with him, but I also encourage him to keep making his case - because he isn't one of those just fighting for his point - he also *thinks* and *considers the other side* and argues using facts rather than opinions. I like this guy. We need this guy in the business. The funny thing about my art vs. commerce arguments is that if you drop me in a room full of artists I argue on the commerce side... but if you drop me in a room full of mercanaries I fight for art. Screenwriting is both.

The problem is – two people can write screenplays of equal artistic quality, but if one is about a farm boy in Ohio who dreams of moving to New York and getting a job as a street poet, and the other is about a farm boy on Tatooine who dreams of being a Jedi Knight and starfighter pilot and rescuing a hot Princess from an evil Black Knight... well, you can guess which screenplay is going to have an easier chance of selling.

There are commercial considerations involved with every screenplay that is bought – and that becomes part of the conversation on the experienced screenwriter side. It's not elitism, it's another danged lesson that most of learned the hard way – and we're trying to help others. Though everyone learns at their own rate, the biggest problem with many of these debates is that some people DO NOT WANT TO LEARN. Not just the commercial stuff (I mean, who really wants to learn that? I fought it) but much of the story stuff that's important. The artsie folks don't want there to be any elements that they can be judged by – so the concept of one script being better *even artistically* than another is some form of elitism.


The real problem with this whole “Elitist” thing is that it makes people with experience and actual knowledge, and brands them with a negative for *trying to help*. That does not make them want to stick around on some messageboard and continue helping when they really should be writing. It also demonizes education and intelligence and experience – which seems crazy to me. It guarantees that those folks on messageboards will stay exactly where they are – because the *do not want to learn*. Knowledge is a negative - ignorance is bliss - stupidity is art.

They often seem to think they know everything – which I don't think this famous writer or myself or any of the other working pros who these folks argued against believe about themselves. I believe there are tons of things that I don't know – and a large part of my life and my website and my blog are trying to figure out how things work and share that knowledge... but mostly trying to figure it out because there are things I don't know.

Do you think you know everything?


I think for most of us, the more we know the more we realize we don't know... and need to learn. Writing screenplays is incredibly complicated, and requires that you get a bunch of different ingredients in the proper mix.

The problem on some messageboards (and with some executives) is they think that one 110 pages of typing is the same as another 110 pages of typing. That writing the pages is the hard part. And there are plenty of screenplays that get so damaged in development that their 110 pages of writing *is* equal to just about any other 110 pages of typing. But those scripts die a quick death – and if they are made into films due to some mistake, the films die a quick death.

The key is to write something that people think about a decade later... because it will be good (art!) *and* because a decade later you'll want them to call you and hire you for some project. If they read your 110 pages of typing and instantly forget it, you have a problem. Though scripts can be developed into crap, you don't want them to start out that way. My belief (hope) is that even when a script gets mangled there's enough good stuff left to hint that there was a great version they bought. Though, I have no idea what that good stuff might be in the filmed version of CROOKED.

Of course, even if they screw up your screenplay on the way to the screen, your actual screenplay still exists as a sample - and I get all kinds of calls years later based on someone reading a screenplay before it got ruined. I have also used those screenplays as samples. In fact, I have some people interested in hiring me now based on a screenplay they read in the past... which they remembered.

You see - art is involved in screenwriting. Even in popular screenwriting. It's not just "write a 110 page action script", it's writing a 110 page action script that is better than the other hundreds of scripts they have read and will turn out an okay movie once it goes through the meatgrinder. If anything, a popular commercial film really needs to be *artistic* and great more than the art film - since if the art film ever gets made it is most likely to be written and directed and produced by the same person (no meatgrinder). The martial arts star lead isn't going to rewrite all of his lines... so that the actions end up being the thing that carries the story and theme and emotional conflict.

There are great commercial scripts and stinkers. Some screenplays are better than others. Some writers have learned more than others - and that is reflected in the quality of their writing. Doesn't mean those other writers can't learn as much and write scripts of equal quality eventually. Just means *at this point in time* the more experienced writer is, well, more experienced. They've done it many more times and learned more.

I think one of the issues with those who think all 110 pages are equal is what I call the WINO THEORY. I once dated a woman who worked in the wine biz, and know some people in the biz (one guy who gets paid to drink!) and a sommelier – and wrote a script called ROUGH FINISH that was James Bond as a wine taster.

Wine ends up being a lot like screenwriting.

The average person can drink two different glasses of wine and think one tastes good and the other does not – but that's about it. If you give that average person two different glasses of *good* wine, they may not be able to tell which is better. Both are equal to them.

But “educate their palates” and teach them a little about wine, and they can easily tell a cabernet from a merlot from a zinfandel from a pinot noir. They may prefer one over the other. They also know what a cabernet is supposed to taste like (basically) and whether it tastes strange or even has been cut with some other grape. At this stage they can also probably tell you whether the wine was fermented in oak or steel or even redwood or acacia or pine.

The next step might be to refine their palates so that they can tell which region the grapes were grown in – each soil leaves a mark. And maybe even make a good guess at the year due to the amount of tanic acid in the wine. Now they can take a dozen “good” glasses of wine and tell you more about each one – and maybe even taste minor defects in some wine that the average drinker never knew were there. They “have better taste”.

And with each increase in education, with each piece of knowledge, they can taste little details that the average drinker may not even know exist.

My character in ROUGH FINISH was a “private palate” who would break into a winery and taste the wine “before its time” to help investors and wine connoisseurs know which Bordeauxs to buy. He tastes something in the wine that only a handful of people in the world would even notice – and becomes the man who knows too much. Fun idea for a chase action script – but it's based on the (real) idea that an expert wine taster would be able to denote things no one else could... is that Elitism or Experience and Education?

My theory is that the new screenwriter might think the difficult part is getting to FADE OUT – and that *is* difficult. But a hundred thousand people a year get to FADE OUT... and the more you know, the more you can see what is just a bit off on one script and right on the money in another – and the more you know how to write that better screenplay.

You don't just give every character a unique voice and vocabulary and world view and attitude... you realize that all of those different elements are connected in some way to theme... and theme is connected to universal truths that connect to the audience. It just gets more and more complicated! And I don't think you ever reach some point where you know it all. There is always something to learn.

But if you think just writing 110 pages is all there is to it, you have failed.

If you think you don't need to learn anything more, you have failed.

If you think that the 1% who believe the Earth is flat are just as correct as the 99% who believe it is round, you aren't thinking and are not trying to learn and better yourself.

If you think someone who has learned more than you know at this point in time and is trying to help you is an elitist, you have failed.

And, if you know more than someone else – help them. Costs you nothing.

I've found that most established screenwriters want to help new writers – they empathize. They were that new writer at one time, and want to help you avoid all of the pitfalls they stumbled through. So, on a messageboard or in person or whatever – thank them for the help and don't fight them until they just give up on *everybody* and leave. I think it's all about learning - and continuing to learn. Any writer who is giving you advice - even if you don't like what they are saying - is trying to help you. they don't have to do that. They don't get paid to do that. They have many other things they can do that either pay more or are more enjoyable.

Experience and knowledge are not elitism.

If people are trying to *help you* - that's the opposite of elitism.

And DAYS OF HEAVEN is one of my favorite movies... along with AIRPLANE!

- Bill

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Trailer Tuesday: American Friend (1977)

Since everyone is talking about DEEP WATER, here's another film based on a novel by Highsmith...

Directed by: Wim Wenders.
Written by: Wim Wenders based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Bruno Ganz, Dennis Hopper, Lisa Kruezer, Gerard Blain, Sam Fuller & Nicholas Ray
Director Of Photography: Robby Muller.
Music: Jürgen Knieper.

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY is getting a longform TV version from the writer of LUTHER, so let's look at another story in the Ripley series...

One of the things I have realized over the years is that the films you saw when you first *really* got into movies become your favorites because they opened doors in your mind that you didn’t even know existed. Often someone younger than I (that doesn’t take much these days) mentions one of their favorite film... and it’s some movie I think is a piece of crap. Of course, I saw it later in life when whatever door that movie opened for them had already been opened for me... so instead of being amazed at whatever the film did, I compared it to all of the other films that did that and found it lacking. But the same thing happens to me frequently: those young people who had the door opened by their film finally get around to seeing mine and think, “What’s the big deal?” This has taught me to be less judgmental about those films people love. Better that they love films than not love them!

So, in the 70s I caught this film because someone called it “Hitchcockian” and became a fan of Wim Wenders (to this day). This is not the usual Wenders film at all, but I found it fascinating that he actually understood how to make a suspense film: he knew how to use the camera to tell the story and use editing to create suspense. When someone shows that they know how to do something difficult like this, I cut them a lot of slack when they go off and do their own thing in their own style. So I was a fan of his films which are often valentines to America. He can take a 9 year old girl and turn her into the tour guide for America - seeing our world through her eyes... or show us small town life in Texas, or give us a Hollywood full of conspiracies and crime, or the great America road trip... in Germany! But I first discovered him with this Hitchcockian film based on a Patricia Highsmith RIPLEY novel about a normal dad and husband who discovers he is dying of a rare disease and is offered a fortune to leave for his family... all he has to do is kill a guy. A total stranger. A mobster the world would be better off without. Could you kill someone to help your family?

As you can see, BREAKING BAD's concept really owes a lot to AMERICAN FRIEND... the idea of a quiet intelligent man doing terrible things that are against the law to provide for his family because he is terminally ill... and killing a bunch of gangsters in the process... is the basic story of both. In both the lead must keep his side job secret from his wife and kid, and when it is discovered instead of appreciating the *huge* personal and emotional sacrifices he has gone through to provide for his family, they turn against him and he must fight to win them back. The parallels are strong between the two... which makes me wonder why nobody ever mentioned it.

Wenders was a genius for combining Highsmith’s RIPLEY'S GAME and RIPLEY UNDER WATER (the second and third novels in the series after THE TALENTED MR.) and then taking Jonathan's point of view instead of Ripley's. Instead of being the puppet master's story, we get the puppet... who finds himself in over his head just to provide for his family after he dies. The story is filled with twists and turns and has a bit of that 70's stillness used in films like THE PARALLAX VIEW. The film is also filled with music, and a love for The Beatles... and Volkswagen Beetles. Beautifully shot by Robby Muller, with a great score by Jürgen Knieper (who also scored RIVER’S EDGE), the film has a deliberate pace that works for the story...

Jonathan (Bruno Ganz who would later play Hitler in that DOWNFALL movie that you haven’t seen but *have* seen that one scene where Hitler loses it in a million memes) is a picture framer whose wife (Lisa Kreuzer) works for an auction house, and when he is introduced to Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper, I wish it had been John Malkovich who played this role in a remake) he refuses to shake his hand. Ripley feels insulted, and later when a Paris mobster Minot (Gerard Blaine) is looking for an assassin who can not be traced back to the mob, Ripley gives him Jonathan. You see, Jonathan has a rare blood disease may not have long to live. So Minot approaches Jonathan and offers him a second opinion at the most prestigious hospital in Europe... all expenses paid... as long as Jonathan listens to his offer afterwards. Jonathan goes in for the test... and Minot creates *forged* results saying that Jonathan is knocking on death’s door. Then offers Jonathan a job killing a mobster on a train. Here’s the thing: worst that can happen if Jonathan is caught is that he’ll die before trial, and his family will still get the money and be provided for. Jonathan reluctantly agrees... and then goes to kill the man. Except it’s never as easy as you think. This leads to one of the most intense suspense scenes I’ve seen as Jonathan can’t find the right time to shoot the guy... and every second he hesitates is a chance to be caught!

Eventually he kills the mobster, only to find out there are more mobsters to be killed and Minot wants Jonathan to kill a well guarded mobster on a train. (Lots of trains in this film, it *is* by Highsmith who wrote STRANGERS ON A TRAIN). This time he is *way* over his head and his whole life spirals out of control. One of the things I swiped from this film for my HARD EVIDENCE script that was made for USA Network was the way the protagonist feels he can’t tell his spouse about this problems, when he needs all of the help he can get. Eventually Jonathan admits everything to his wife and they team up to resolve the conflict... though not in the way they thought.

One of the great things are all of the cameos by film directors. Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray (playing the dead painter Derwatt from RIPLEY UNDERGROUND) and Lou Castel. Wenders was a real fan of American noir films and cast his heroes in the film... later he would make a documentary about Ray’s final days.

The film is an interesting hybrid between studio movie and European arthouse, technically really well made but still focusing on character and those small moments (I love when Jonathan is playing with his son or trying to get two halves of a frame to come together. This film along with Wender’s Polanskiesque GOALIES ANXIETY AT THE PENALTY KICK are slick Hollywood style films with that indie bent. He knew how to do dolly shots and crane shots and make a film that looks bigger than it probably was. His other films like ALICE IN THE CITY and THE WRONG MOVE and KINGS OF THE ROAD have a ragged indie feel to them. Oh, and this film landed him a big Hollywood picture, HAMMETT (the dude who wrote THE MALTESE FALCON based on a novel by Joe Gores... though the movie throws out almost everything from the book), and the failure of that Hollywood film lead to the success of PARIS, TEXAS and WINGS OF DESIRE. He’s done some interesting work since then on films like UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD and THE END OF VIOLENCE and the doc BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB and he has a new movie out this year.

- Bill

Friday, June 14, 2024

The Lost Hitchcock Film



So here is some background on this “lost Hitchcock film” THE WHITE SHADOW...

When Hitchcock was 21 - the year was 1920 - he got a job with Famous Players Lasky, an American film company that opened a studio in England. That company would eventually become Paramount Pictures. Hitchcock was interested in film and studying advertizing art in college and submitted some art for title cards to the new studio... and was hired. In the silent era, movie title cards had the minimum dialogue to tell the story - hand lettered in an easy to read style - and a small illustration. Hitchcock’s example for Truffaut was: “George was living a fast life” and the illustration would be a candle burning at both ends. Writing title cards was part of post production, because often a film changed completely during production and the assembled shots might tell a completely different story. Hitchcock told the story of a drama that didn’t turn out well, so the title cards were comedy dialogue that transformed the meaning of the scenes so that the film became a crazy comedy.

Hitchcock did title cards on numerous films... and was curious about films, so he asked questions and learned about the various jobs. Part of titling a film was reading the screenplays, and he learned how to write scripts and occasionally wrote a last minute scene for the films - kind of production rewrite work.

During this time Hitchcock directed a short film, NUMBER THIRTEEN (1922) which he says was never completed.

When Famous Players Lasky left the studios, British producers took over and Hitchcock was promoted to assistant director. On a film called ALWAYS TELL YOUR WIFE (1922) the director became ill and Hitchcock and the star completed the film - Hitch was kind of coy when he told this story to Truffaut, so my guess is that the star actually directed the remaining scenes and Hitch just did his assistant directing chores and maybe made a suggestion or two.

In late 1922 producer Michael Balcon began producing films at the studio and hired young Hitchcock as his assistant director for a series of films to be directed by Graham Cutts, starting with WOMAN TO WOMAN. Hitchcock was ambitious, and when they needed a screenplay offered to write it... and had a spec script sample he had written to show what he could do. He wrote the script, was assistant director, did set design (art school background), did the title cards, and was Graham Cutts’ assistant. He performed these tasks on the entire series of films: WOMAN TO WOMAN (1922), THE WHITE SHADOW (1923), THE PASSIONATE ADVENTURE (1924), THE BLACKGUARD (1925), and THE PRUDE’S FALL (1925). Of the five, Hitchcock said WOMAN TO WOMAN was the best of the lot. Oh, the film editor and script supervisor on all of these films was Hitch’s future wife Alma - these are the projects where they met and fell in love.

Hitchcock had a falling out with Cutts on PRUDE’S FALL, but instead of being fired, producer Michael Balcon gave Hitch his first actual directing job on THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925)... which will be the *last* entry in the Fridays With Hitchcock series.

The “lost film”, THE WHITE SHADOW, was the second in that series. Directed by Graham Cutts, screenplay co-written by Hitchcock who also did sets. Hitch had nothing to say about it to Truffaut, so I’m guessing it was just a job. These films were all melodramas, shot in 6 weeks, and none of them were very popular. This one was about twin sisters: one good, one evil. Maybe the first time they did that story, but I'm guessing not. It got bad reviews when it opened... many critics pointing to the silly script (co-written by Hitch). It would take a few more years for Hitchcock to find his footing and make BLACKMAIL (1929) before he started to become the director we now know. I suspect when these three remaining reels are restored and shown at that screening in Beverly Hills... it will be kind of a let down. Interesting to see an old film that Hitchcock did some work on, but not really a Hitchcock movie (he didn’t direct it).

The guy who *did* direct the film, Graham Cutts, basically fired Hitch... and that allowed him to begin his career as a director. Later, when Hitch was gearing up to make THE 39 STEPS (the film that would get him to Hollywood) he needed a second unit director for some odds and ends establishing shots and the producer suggested... Graham Cutts. Hitchcock said he couldn’t hire Cutts, since he had basically began as Cutts’ assistant. The producer told Hitch that Cutts had fallen on hard times and really needed a job and was willing to do the second unit stuff. Hitch hired him. So it came full circle, and Cutts sort of became Hitchcock’s assistant. Or maybe Hitch was repaying Cutts for the on-the-job-training on films like WHITE SHADOW. Maybe we should do a retrospective of Graham Cutts’ films, as the man who created Hitchcock?

And here's the film, if you're interested: THE WHITE SHADOW.

- Bill


TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: How Many Stories Can One Movie Tell?
Dinner: A family New Years Meal.
Pages: No, recovery from drinking instead.
Bicycle: No. I'm in the Bay Area.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

THRILLER Thursday: Choose A Victim


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

Season: 1, Episode: 19.
Airdate: January 24, 1961

Director: Richard Carlson
Writer: George Bellak
Cast: Larry Blyden, Susan Oliver, Vaughn Taylor, Billy Barty, Tracey Roberts.
Music: Pete Rugolo
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon
Producer: Maxwell Shane

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “What the young man is touching is the rotor of her beautiful expensive sports car, without which it will never start. The first gambit by Ralphie Teal, who feels that the world is his oyster. Whose tastes are becoming very expensive. And who knows, if the only way he can satisfy those tastes is for him to Choose A Victim, the title of tonight’s story. Our leading players are Mr. Larry Blyden, Miss Susan Oliver, Mr. Vaughn Taylor, and Miss Tracy Roberts. And as sure as my name is Boris Karloff, you’ll find it puzzling to choose the victim of tonight’s macabre events. You may find yourself grossly mislead, possibly surprised, but we do hope that you enjoy this thriller.”

Synopsis: Past his pull date beach bum Ralphie Teal (Larry Blyden) imagines himself a player... he may hang out with his main squeeze Fay (Tracey Roberts) who works at the beach’s boardwalk arcade, but he’s always scanning the girls on the beach for fresh talent. When Edith Landers (Susan Oliver) pulls up in a sports car and steps out in a bathing suit, Ralphie comes up with a scheme. He pulls the rotor cap from the sports car and waits for Edith to return. When he car doesn’t start, he has her pop the hood... tells her the engine is flooded and she’ll have to wait a half hour before trying to start it again, and he knows a great little coffee shop around the corner. During that half hour he hits on her *hard*, trying to create an instant relationship with this wealthy young woman. Oh, she has jewelry in her purse which catches Ralphie’s eyes. He waits to make sure his car starts right up (he’s replaced the rotor cap) and comes up with a plan for their next meeting.

The next day she drives up to the beach again, and Ralphie goes down to the sand to flirt with her. He invites her back to his little beachfront apartment for coffee... and she says yes. Somewhere in here Fay knocks at the door and Ralphie gets rid of her, but Fay starts to become supicious and jealous. Edith tells Ralphie that her parents died and left her a fortune, but her mean Uncle is the executor and has her on an allowance and is always after her to settle down and get married to someone in her social strata. She’ll never have any fun as long as her Uncle is around. When she leaves, Ralphie asks if he can hitch a ride, because his car is being repaired near where she lives (this makes absolutely no sense, but she agrees).

At the mansion where she lives, Ralphie gets out and insists on walking to the car repair place (which probably doesn’t exist). When she goes inside the house, Ralphie takes note of the address and security measures.

Edith’s mean Uncle (Vaughn Taylor) gives her a lecture when she comes inside. He is kind of a pain in the butt...

Fay wants to go out with Ralphie, but he says he’s got something to do... Dressed in all black, wearing black gloves, he slides a big glittering knife into his pocket.

That night, while Edith sleeps, Ralphie breaks into her bedroom looking for all of those jewels in her purse: a diamond bracelet and necklace. She wakes up! Ralphie puts his hand over her mouth and his big glittering knife to her throat. When the wind blows the closet door shut, mean Uncle asks if Edith is okay, and she says she’s fine... and *doesn’t* tell him that Ralphie is in her room. She even lets Ralphie leave (without jewelry) and tells him to meet her tomorrow under the boardwalk.

The next day, Edith tells Ralphie that they must not be seen together because her mean Uncle will get mad... and Ralphie agrees, since he doesn’t want Fay to find out he’s cheating on her. Edith gives Ralphie a very expensive cigarette lighter and some other gifts, and begins planting the idea that they could be together in her mansion if only mean Uncle would drop dead. It takes a while for Ralphie to catch on, and suggest that maybe they should *help* her Uncle drop dead somehow.

Ralphie comes up with a plan. Uncle often drives on a winding cliffside road into town to drink at a luxurious bar... and drives back over that dangerous road when drunk. They can stop him at a particularly dangerous curve, Ralphie will tell him his car has broken down, and while Uncle is distracted, Edith can ram his car over the cliff with Ralphie’s car. When Uncle leaves the house, she’s to call the payphone at the arcade and let it ring 2 times then hang up. No completed call means it can’t be traced by the police later on. But Ralphie will hear it, come and pick up Edith, and they will wait on that dangerous curve for Uncle to return drunk...

Fay wants to go out with Ralphie when the phone rings, and he has to stop the Arcade Boss (Billy Barty) from answering. Two rings, then nothing. Ralphie says he’s busy and splits.

Ralphie and Edith wait in the dark car until Uncle’s car drives up, and Ralphie gets out and stops it. He has to keep talking to Uncle while Edith puts the car in gear and rams Uncle’s car... be she never does. Uncle drives off and Ralphie blows up at Edith. She says she just couldn’t do it. Ralphie realizes he’ll have to do it himself, and it’s probably best for Edith to be somewhere public getting an alibi.

There’s a bit of suspense that doesn’t work, when after Edith calls the arcade phone booth and lets it ring twice, Uncle ends up loaning his car to a friend and she must stop Ralphie for killing the wrong man, but eventually it’s Ralphie and Mean Uncle on that dangerous curve, and Mean Uncle goes over the cliff (where his car, like a good movie or TV car, explodes for no apparent reason on its way down). Mean Uncle is dead and Ralphie and Edith can live happily ever after in her mansion.

When Ralphie gets back to his apartment, he find Edith waiting there for him! She was supposed to be somewhere establishing an alibi! But she says she was worried and wanted to make sure it went well. There’s some kissing, and then Edith leaves so that she’ll be home when the police come to tell her about the terrible accident. But when Edit leaves, she forgets one of her gloves.

Next morning, Ralphie is awoken by pounding on his door: the police! Detective Hazlett (Guy Mitchell) says they need to take him downtown for questioning.

Detective Hazlett and others interrogate him, they *know* he killed mean Unlce. But how? They search him and find: Mean Uncle’s cigarette lighter and wallet! Ralphie claims the lighter is his, a gift! Has no idea where the wallet came from. Then call in Edith and she I.D.s him as the creep who kept hitting on her at the beach and might have followed her home once. Ralphie keeps insisting that they have a relationship, but Edith asks the police why a woman like her would ever date a beach bum like him. Makes no sense at all. The police believe her, and she walks out... leaving Ralphie in line for the electric chair while she no longer has a mean Uncle.

On the street in front of the Police Station she goes to put on her gloves... and can only find one! She left the other at Ralphie’s apartment! When she goes to break in and retrieve it, she spots *Fay* breaking into Ralphie’s apartment, looking for evidence of his cheating... and Fay find the glove! Edith follows Fay, waiting for a chance to steal the glove back. Fay goes to work, where the Arcade Manager tells her that Ralphie was arrested for murder. Fay can’t believe this. Ralphie is a cheater and a thief, but not a killer! When Fay sets the glove down on the counter and goes to the back of the arcade, Edith moves quickly to snatch up the glove... But Detective Hazlett gets there first. He smelled Edith’s expensive perfume on Ralphie’s clothes, and wondered if maybe Ralphie was telling the truth about Edith being in on the murder. They slap the cuffs on Edith and haul her away.

Review: This is the kind of story you would find on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and has some great twists and nice possibilities for suspense... but it just doesn’t deliver. The suspense scenes don’t seem to work, even though you can clearly see that they were written to work. The director, Richard Carlson, was an actor who had directed some TV episodes by this time, but seems not to have the skill set to shoot a suspense scene. On a show like HITCHCOCK every episode was suspense based, so they hired directors who could do that, and if you were a director hired for the show you know that’s what they needed from you. THRILLER was so erratic that a director may have been originally considered for one of the more dramatic episodes and then end up doing a horror episode or a suspense episode. The scene where Ralphie breaks in to Edith’s bedroom has her asleep in the background, which is a suspense situation... but it comes off flat and kind of boring. It’s Ralphie looking for the bracelet and necklace with no real possibility of being caught... even though you can see that possibility is how the writer intended the scene to work. Every scene that seems to be written for suspense comes off kind of dull. When Ralphie has to keep talking to mean Uncle as he waits for Edith to ram the car is just a talk scene... when it was obviously written to be nail biting suspense as he must keep talking and talking. So the episode is bland.

Also, Larry Blyden seems miscast. I don’t know his career, but he seems more light a light comedy guy... that funny next door neighbor in a sitcom... than a sleazy beach bum / thief. Though both women are attractive, this is James M. Cain territory and Edith seems particularly non sexy for a femme fatale. I have no idea whether that was a censorship issue or more bland direction, but for a hot woman in a bathing suit she comes off cold in scene after scene. The actress Susan Oliver had a career playing vamps, so it’s not like she didn’t know how to do that... it was someone else’s choice.

Again, because this is a Pete Rugolo score, I wonder if this wasn’t an earlier episode held until later to make room for good ones like HUNGRY GLASS?


Buy The DVD!

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Film Courage Plus: Remake Mistakes!

It seems like every movie made today is a remake or a sequel!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 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?

Hollywood loves remakes and reboots and sequels and adaptations. As a screenwriter, you probably hate this because you have written a bunch of great original screenplays and just want to see *your* stories on screen. You poured your heart and soul into these original screenplays, but Hollywood is remaking some Adam Sandler movie starring some new kid from Saturday Night Live, or is making FAST & FURIOUS 12 or adapting a trashy novel written by a book agent under a pseudonym or remaking a Stephen King novel for the third time or has decided it’s time to reboot IRON MAN or make THE MASK 3 with both Jim Carrey and Eric Stoltz (or to reboot that joke so that people in their 30s understand it). They only buy around 100 original screenplays a year, and only make a fraction of those! How is a screenwriter supposed to make a living if they keep making all of these remakes and sequels and adaptations?

Well, somebody still has to write those.

And that somebody might be you.

Most of a screenwriter’s income comes from assignments - those remakes and adaptations and reboots and sequels. It’s not uncommon to hire new writers to do the “grunt work” of writing the first drafts for remakes and reboots and adaptations, then hire a big name writer to do the rewrite and give it that “Barton Fink feeling”. I know a bunch of writers whose first jobs were working on some remake or adaptation, and doing several different drafts until they had found the very best way to tell the story... and then it was handed off to a big name writer. The new writer doing several drafts to “break the story” was much cheaper than the rewrite from the name writer. So it often makes sense to hire new talent to work on those remakes and reboots, etc. They have done this with sequels, too - a big hit series at Warner Bros once hired three different new writers to come up with a sequel, and then picked the best one. That’s frowned upon, because the real money is when the film gets made (production bonus) but even the writers who “lost” had a screenplay for a big hit franchise on their resume.

I have written a remake, adapted a New York Times Best Selling novel, been in the running for a bunch of sequels, and had a bunch of assignments where I wrote a screenplay to fit a production company’s specific needs (from my pitch, or sometimes from their idea). Early in my career I was in the running to adapt a big best selling novel (some other new writer got the job). So instead of seeing these endless remakes and sequels and reboots and adaptations as bad things, look at them as possible jobs in your future!


You may wonder why Hollywood is obsessed with remakes and sequels and reboots and adaptations, but it’s just basic business. Last time they released the numbers (probably a decade ago) the *average* film cost $107 million by the time it hit the screen, and these days people only buy tickets to see blockbusters - which often cost $250 million. That’s a lot of money to gamble on a single film, so they tend to look for “sure things”... like movies that have previously been hits or novels that have been huge best sellers. If they liked it before, they will probably like it again! And for the most part that theory works.

When people complain about remakes, I usually point out that the version of THE WIZARD OF OZ that they love is a remake of a remake of a remake of a remake. Hollywood has ALWAYS made remakes... the famous Humphrey Bogart version of THE MALTESE FALCON was the third version made in ten years! Some movies in the 1930s and 1940s were remakes of a film made the year before! One of my favorite private eye movies MURDER MY SWEET was the remake of a movie in the FALCON series made the year before (to be fair, both were adaptations of the same novel that the production company bought the rights to). Back then, there was no TV or video - the only place you could see a movie was in the cinema, so once a movie played in cinemas... it often went onto a shelf in a warehouse somewhere. Making it again a year or two later was a way to have a NEW movie with a story that had been popular before... and that’s still the plan and the plan usually works. Which is why they keep doing it.

And “franchises” have also always been part of Hollywood - there were 12 films in THE FALCON series, and I lost count when trying to count up the CHARLIE CHAN movies. In the 1930s and 1940s there were franchises and spin offs and reboots (with a different cast - Charlie Chan did that) and all of the things that people complain about today. If one film is a big hit, they make a sequel... if the sequel is a big hit, they think of it as a franchise. As I write this there’s a SAW reboot in cinemas starring Chris Rock. Sequels and franchises and reboots are good business decisions...

And this is a business.

And that means that these are jobs that you might be hired for.

So if you get hired for AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER what are the things to think about as a writer? How do you write that?


By now some of you are excited because you have a great idea for the next SILVER SURFER movie or MISSION IMPOSSIBLE movie or maybe you have read a novel that you think would make a fantastic film or you have an amazing idea for SLINKY: THE MOTION PICTURE! (The exclamation point is part of the title) or you want to reboot some old TV show that was your favorite when you were a kid, and now want to know what to do after you have written the screenplay?

Well, that’s not how it works.

All of those reboots and remakes and novel adaptations and sequels like AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER are *assignments*. You don’t call them, they call you. Some production company or studio *owns the rights* to those movies that you might have a reboot or remake or sequel idea for - and they hire writers to write those screenplays. They don’t buy spec scripts for those. They own the characters and worlds and all of the rest of the stuff from the original film, so you can not legally write a spec sequel or remake or reboot or re-imagining or whatever. They own the Intellectual Property.

Think of that property like a car - they own the car. You might think that it would look great if it were painted bright orange and have a spoiler on the back and not just have white wall tires but 100% white rubber tires. But taking the car that belongs to them is probably not a good idea. Painting it orange and adding the spoiler and the all white tires? Really not a good idea. Trying to sell the car that already belongs to them back to them after you have painted it some color that they might hate and welded a spoiler to the back and added those all white tires that they think look silly and then trying to sell it back to them? That probably is going to land you in prison.

How it works: Someone at the studio thinks that it’s time for a new SILVER SURFER movie. They make a list of writers who they think would do a great job writing a new SILVER SURFER movie, call their agents or managers and bring the writers in to “pitch their take” - explain how they would write a new SILVER SURFER movie. They listen to all of the pitches and then pick one (or sometimes more) and hire the writer to write a treatment or screenplay... but often they want the writer's "take" plus the production company's ideas, and sometimes it’s just the production company's ideas (they don't want your ideas, just your writing skills). Often they have a plan for the SILVER SURFER that isn’t anything like what the writer pitched them - you see, they eventually want to do a SILVER SURFER/VENOM team up film, and have come up with a path for the SILVER SURFER to take to reach that eventual film. So they hire the writer to write the screenplay that THEY WANT. It isn’t orange and doesn’t have a spoiler or solid white tires!

They call you.

How do you get on that list?

I’ve been on some of those lists. You write a bunch of great ORIGINAL screenplays that use YOUR characters and YOUR worlds and YOUR everything else. Great ones. And they read one or two or three of those ORIGINAL screenplays and think that you are the person who should write the new SILVER SURFER movie. On a remake job that I had, the producer was looking for a writer and the head of production had read one of my scripts while working for another producer and suggested me. So they requested a more recent screenplay by me in that genre, and I sent it to them. They liked it! So they ask to read ANOTHER screenplay in that genre, just to make sure that the first one (well, second one) wasn’t a fluke. They liked that screenplay, too! They had me come in for a meeting to pitch my take on the remake (the original was made before cell phones and the prevalence of computers - how could I make the story work in today’s world?). Now, I have no idea how many other writers they called in to pitch their take. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one. But whatever I said or did, I was the one who they hired...

And even though they loved my take on the remake... they had their own ideas, and I was hired to write their idea of what the remake should be. Not my idea.

Because they own the Intellectual Property.

Adapting a book or anything that you do not own the rights to is a complete waste of time. You can never show it to anyone (it’s like trying to sell that stolen car you have painted orange) and in the case of a book - there’s a very good chance that a studio or production company owns the rights to that book and has already hired writers to adapt it. Usually, any book worth buying the film rights to has already sold those rights when the book was in “galleys” - before it was published. Basically a studio or producer is buying the AUDIENCE for the book - the millions of readers when it becomes a Best Seller. If a publisher is doing a huge print run and spending a ton on advertizing on the book, then it’s likely to be a best seller even before it’s published. A book that wasn’t a best seller? Well, why would Hollywood want to buy a small audience? So adapting a book that you haven’t bought the rights to is a waste of time. Again - they call you. I have adapted a NYT Best Seller and a couple of other books, and turned some jobs down and just didn’t get other book adaptation jobs. Someone else had a better take. They called me because they had read multiple ORIGINAL screenplays by me that they liked. They want to be able to judge MY WRITING, not my adaptation of someone else’s writing. So they want to read my original screenplays... and they’ll want to read your original screenplays before hiring you.

Hint: When you have an original screenplay go wide and end up on the “water bottle tour” doing a bunch of meetings on studio lots? Find out what movies owned by that studio you might want to remake or reboot or whatever and in your meetings mention that THE GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT is one of your favorite movies and you have an awesome idea of how to remake it for 2021! They might ask you for more - and you pitch your take. Maybe you get on the list of writers when they are calling people in to remake that film!

But what if they say “Yes!”? What if you end up writing a remake of THE GLASS BOTTOMED BOAT or writing AMERICAN PIE 27: SENIOR CENTER?


Which gets into the question in the clip... why do so many sequels and remakes and reboots and adaptations and all of that other stuff *fail*? If you are the writer who wins the competition and gets hired to write a sequel or remake, how can you avoid failing?

I’m so glad you asked.

I think the most important thing is to remember that Hollywood is looking for “The Same But Different” - and the reason why so many sequels fail is that they forget one of those two things. They are either nothing like the original hit film, or too much like the original hit film. Finding that sweet spot between the two is often difficult... but that’s the job!

I think the perfect example of doing it right is ALIEN and ALIENS. The first film was basically a horror movie on a space ship, with a creature relentlessly hunting an attacking the crew - and no way to escape the space ship. When crew members are poking around in the dark space ship where the creature might be hiding, it builds dread and terror... just like a haunted house movie. The sequel is a military action story - the same but different. Our group of tough space marines are going on a rescue mission, with Ripley along as a reluctant expert. The focus is more on action - though we still have all of those dark recesses of the “shake and bake” colony where a *bunch* of aliens might be hiding. But instead of running from the aliens, they are going to exterminate them! Until things go very wrong. “Game over, man!” By taking the basic elements of the story and presenting them in a different genre, we can get that great mix of The Same and Different that delivers the same excitement in a different way.

Because I am writing this soon after the death of Ed Asner, he starred in two TV shows that are another great example of this. On THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW he played Lou Grant, the news editor who was very prickly on the outside but had a big heart hidden deep inside. He was a great character for a situation comedy. Always growling about journalistic integrity in a business that was ratings driven. Their news anchor was an idiot... that the viewers loved and trusted. But LOU GRANT was a drama about a newspaper and a group of investigative reporters overseen by a prickly editor with a big heart hidden deep inside of him. The same character that we love - in a show with a different genre. The same, but different.

The big complaints about HANGOVER 2 was that it was a search and replace sequel. They seemed to just change the locations. To the point that Doug, the misplaced groom from the first film, wasn't part of the search for the misplaced brother in the second film... even though there was no reason for him not to be part of the search party! Too much "the same" and not enough "different". It would be like the Alien in ALIEN just attacking some other ship with some other crew... that Ripley just happened to be part of (you always bring back the star). The thing that made HANGOVER fun was the creative way that the story was told... so what they should have done is find a *different* way to tell the story in the sequel, which was also creative and fun. You can't just leave out the creative way the story is told, then there would be a "hole" in the story. It would be *less* than the original. You need to find a different *creative* way to tell the story. That way, what made the first film special (and made it a hit) would be replaced by something that will make the sequel special... rather than just the same as the first film. You want ALIEN and ALIENS.


The big problem with remakes is often that they charge something that made the original a success, which makes the film different in all the wrong ways. In trying to make the sequel a unique experience, instead of just a carbon copy of the original, they screw it up! This is where you need to be aware of *why* the original was a success.

TOTAL RECALL is a good example of this - the co-writer of the original, Ronny Shusett, was on a panel with me once and talked about the struggle they had coming up with a big ending... And then figuring out giving oxygen to Mars which was saving the world in an unusual way. That big ending - and the idea that this might all still be a planted memory rather than reality - is what made the original work... So the remake removed them. And didn't add anything to take their place. Leaving two big holes in the story! Which is why the remake doesn't work.

If you remove something from a story for the remake, you need to replace it with something even better!

The great 40s thriller THE BIG CLOCK was about a magazine reporter falsely accused of murder and trapped in the publishing company's NYC skyscraper. He must find the real killer and the evidence before the police catch him. Sort of THE FUGITIVE in a building. Great film! The 80s remake is just as great - the same but different - instead of a magazine reporter it's a Navy officer, and instead of a NYC skyscraper it's the Pentagon. And in addition to murder - there's possible espionage! A Russian mole deep inside the USA government! The story is still an innocent man trapped in a building trying to find the real killer and avoid being caught and arrested, still has all of the twists and turns of the original. But changing it from magazine publishing to the Pentagon (and the world of government and spies) was that "something even better" replacement. NO WAY OUT and BIG CLOCK can be watched back to back and both films hold up! Both are great!

The problem with "something even better" is that finding that idea isn't easy! It's like finding a second high concept that connects to the original concept in my sequel assignment (which I will talk about in a minute). You really need to take the time to find something great... and studio remakes don't always do that. So if you are "pitching your take" on a remake - find that amazing "different" element that doesn't screw up the "same" part that everyone loved in the original!

One of the fun things about MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT is that in the past all of the films in the series had a different director who used their own unique style... and this time around they had the same director, Christopher McQuarry, who said that he has to *become a different director* to make the second film. ROGUE is a stylish Hitchcock- influenced thriller, FALLOUT is more gritty and driven by a series of horrible choices that the protagonist must make. They *feel* like they were made by completely different people. The stories unfold differently - ROGUE being a traditional spy thriller and FALLOUT being completely unpredictable due to the choices offered. The stories work differently on a basic level. But both feature Tom Cruise doing his own insane stunts and the same cast playing their endearing (or endangering) characters. Different, but the same!


Over a decade ago, I was hired by a production company who had a deal to make DVD sequels to films in the vault at Sony / Columbia. My job was to find movies that were not on the list for theatrical sequels and come up with amazing and exciting pitches for DVD sequels. I ended up with 80 of them. My theory was to take a back-catalogue movie like SECRET WINDOW or BODY DOUBLE or THE ONE or HARDCORE and find a way to turn it into a franchise (so there could be multiple sequels) and then find a new high concept to marry to the original idea. The new high concept was the different part, and for a movie like SECRET WINDOW (based on a Stephen King story about a vengeful entity in a funny hat who came after artists who have stolen the work of others) I had a Phil Specter-like music producer who may have killed a songwriter or two in the past and stolen their music, who is visited by vengeful John Shooter and his unusual hat. For BODY DOUBLE I took the B movie actor who goes under cover as a porno producer to find a killer in the original movie, and have the FBI use his amazing make-up and acting skills to send him undercover as a terrorist accidentally killed during “enhanced interrogation” at Guantanamo Bay (oops!) when Amnesty International wants to check on him. But instead of being Amnesty International, it’s his old terrorist cell rescuing him - and now our actor is playing the role of a lifetime... if he screws up, it will be the end of his life! My idea was to drop the character from the original film into a story that would work if it wasn’t a sequel. The “different” part being what would attract the audience, the “same” part being kind of a “known brand” that will comfort the audience.

And if none of these 80 sequel ideas worked for this producer? I had all of these cool story ideas that I could use for screenplays that had nothing to do with those back-catalogue Sony / Columbia films! The ideas were interesting on their own.

So think about adding a new cool idea if you end up landing a sequel job!

You always want the story to be the same but different.

- Bill

PS: They never made any of my 80 remake ideas! Welcome to Hollywood!
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