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Threatisms: Samuel L. Jackson delivers Shane Black’s ‘Long Kiss Goodnight’

20 September 2010

Poster for "The Long Kiss Goodnight" written by Shane BlackThreatism (noun): creative manner of warning delivered by fictional characters.

There’s a soft spot in my heart for The Long Kiss Goodnight.  Maybe it’s because it combined two sub-genres I am a sucker for: spy chicks and amnesia.  Or maybe because Geena Davis’ Charlene Baltimore could certainly take down Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt in a fight.  Or maybe because it had director Renny Harlin doing his very best John Woo impression.

Certainly, Shane Black’s quirky script helped elevate the material above its genre conventions, as seen when Samuel L. Jackson’s grimy private detective delivers a cavalcade of threats to a man he is conning.  It’s funny in its profane creativity, and made all the better with Sam Jackson letting it fly.

I’m not quite sure why his character is “Young Man” in dialogue, but you can watch the exchange on YouTube to see what Sam Jackson does with it.

  A DOOR KICKED OPEN, WHAM-! Splintered. Lock shattered.

               INT. MOTEL ROOM - AKRON, OHIO - NIGHT

               A NUDE COUPLE on the bed. They look up, startled -- as three
               men burst through the door. The LEADER: a haggard-looking
               man sporting a soup-stain on his tie, whoops, that's the
               design, sorry. MITCH HENESSEY, private investigator and con
               man extraordinaire. He flashes a phony badge:

                                     YOUNG MAN
                         POLICE. DON'T MOVE.

                                     MAN ON BED
                         What the hell is this...?!!

                                     YOUNG MAN
                         Don't give me an attitude, sir. You're
                         assuming I won't shoot your sorry
                         ass, and everyone knows when you
                         make an assumption, you make an ass
                         out of u and mption. I'm Sergeant
                         Madigan, Vice, and if you cop a 'tude,
                         jerkoff, I will see to it you spend
                         the next ten years in prison getting
                         ass-fucked, and if the case is thrown
                         out because my arrest is too violent,
                         then I will personally HIRE men to
                         ass-fuck you for ten years. So if
                         you're an ass-fucking fan, go ahead
                         and mouth off, but meanwhile you're
                         under arrest for the crime of
                         prostitution, now shut the fuck up
                         before I cut out your kneecaps and
                         use 'em as ashtrays.
                              (beat)
                         Officer Donleavy, read him his rights.

You can read the full script at IMSDb.

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First Words: Opening ‘In Bruges’

16 September 2010

Colin Farrell in Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges" © Focus Features

I somehow hadn’t even heard of In Bruges prior to its nomination for 2008’s best original screenplay Oscar.  While I certainly don’t see everything that comes out, the fact that I hadn’t so much as heard the title surprised me.  And one of the things that struck me about the black comedy was its opening…

I really dig the opening. I love how Ray’s introductory monologue belies the stark gothic images it plays over, how it begins as a dark confession and ends as a quasi-joke.  I remember laughing because, honestly, I didn’t even know where Bruges was either.

It’s a good tone-setter for a black comedy that effortlessly mixes pathos and wit.  And lots and lots of profanity.

Lost Scenes: Marcus Aurelius’ pre-battle speech from ‘Gladiator’

15 September 2010
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator"

Richard Harris played Marcus Aurelius in "Gladiator" © Dreamworks

Even ancient Rome had “Win one for the Gipper” pre-game speeches.  At least, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius did in the first draft of the Gladiator screenplay by David Franzoni.

The final film’s screenplay is credited to Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson, with story credit to Franzoni.  It opened with Russell Crowe’s Maximus (Narcissus in the original version), and I always thought it was a particularly nice touch for a period epic to open on its hero.

By contrast, the original script’s opening pages brought in all the major players prior to the battle, and even introduced Commodus first (a scene that comes after the battle in the film).  Narcissus/Maximus is practically just a face in the crowd in these pages.  Yes, it’s still the same battle against a Germanic horde, but by giving Marcus Aurelius an extended monologue to rouse his soldiers, it painted a larger picture and underscored that this is as much a story of Rome as it is of one of its generals.

In comparison to the film that was eventually produced, was it too much?  Marcus Aurelius is, of course, the one who sparked the plot — his disdain for his own son precipitated his murder and kick-started Maximus’ journey into the gladiatorial arena.  So, the question is: how much real estate should be devoted to a character who is essentially a plot point?  The film went with less for the emperor, and more for the star.

For what its worth, it’s a nifty monologue.

Excerpt from the first draft of the "Gladiator" film script

Expert Advice: Stanley Kubrick on writing characters

14 September 2010

Matthew Modine and Vincent D'Onofrio in "Full Metal Jacket" © Warner Bros.

From The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick by Norman Kagan, Kubrick’s approach to creating, and revealing, character in his scripts:

I think it is essential if a man is good to know where he is bad and to show it, or if he is strong, to decide what the moments are when he is weak and to show it.  And I think that you must never try to explain how he got that way or why he did what he did.”

This thought compliments William Goldman’s belief that movie heroes require mystery.

Threatisms: Creative Threats in Film & TV

13 September 2010

A lot of writing comes down to taking a convention or trope and making it your own. One of my favorites in film is the multitude of ways in which a character conveys menace. So, the “threatisms” category of his blog is where I’ll chronicle some of cinema’s best threats.

Note that these aren’t necessarily catch phrases, though some catch phrases are threats. They are simply a character warning of danger, be it from themselves or the world at large.

And why not begin with one of the most quoted, from William Goldman’s master fencer in The Princess Bride.

WESTLEY, INIGO, AND FEZZIK

moving toward them. Actually Fezzik is dragging Westley, who
is, in turn, dragging Yellin's sword like a stiff dog
leash --Westley simply hasn't the strength to raise it.

						CUT TO:
							 108.

COUNT RUGEN

as the confrontation is about to start.

		RUGEN
	Kill the dark one and the giant,
	but leave the third for
	questioning.

And as his Warriors attack --

Inigo goes wild, and maybe the Warrior's are good, maybe
they're even better than that -- but they never get a chance
to show it because this is something now, this is Inigo gone
mad and the six-fingered sword has never flashed faster and
the FOURTH WARRIOR is dead before the FIRST ONE has even hit
the floor. There is a pause. Then --

		INIGO
		(to Rugen, evenly and soft)
	Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya.
	You killed my father. Prepare to
	die.

						CUT TO:

COUNT RUGEN

For a moment he just stands there, sword in hand. Then he
does a most unexpected thing. He turns and runs the hell away.

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Expert Advice: William Goldman on mysterious heroes

9 September 2010

William Goldman is one of the great screenwriters. Not only did he pen Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and The Princess Bride, he also writes very well about the art and craft of screenwriting, as seen in the introductory essays in his screenplay collections, and in his two behind-the-scenes tell-alls: Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade.

I was re-reading the latter, and despite a few dated pop culture references, it’s still enormously entertaining and incredibly insightful. In the section about the writing (and possible reason for failure) of The Ghost & the Darkness, he uses this wonderfully witty exchange from Casablanca to illustrate the point that movie heroes must have one thing going for them: mystery.

What does “I was misinformed” tell us about Rick? As Goldman writes,

What it tells us is this: Don’t ask. What it tells us is this: Bad things happened, it’s dark down there, and I will die before I tell you. A lot of that comes from the dialogue, a lot from the speaker of the dialogue.  If the Hansons are in Casablanca, you know it’s because they have a gig there.  Or some high school girl they like is taking summer school.  But Bogart–Bogart then–forty-four years old, with the gravel voice, the sad wrinkled face, that man understands pain.  And no power on earth will make him talk about it, it’s that awful.

The character of Rick, of course, is very old — he is the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past. Most movie stars–actors, not comedians–have essentially all played that same role.  And they have to always face front, never turn sideways–

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what?  They disappear.

I thought this was especially interesting considering that the audience does eventually find out via flashback what the deal is. But in the first act of the film, Rick is very much a mysterious, larger-than-life figure who even pokes fun at the rudimentary file the Germans have on him (“Are my eyes really blue?”). The flashback works as an answer to the mystique. Imagine if the film instead opened chronologically, with the Paris sequence serving as a kind of teaser… not as good, right?

Description: Serious ‘Bourne’ Teching

31 August 2010

The "CRI hub" in The Bourne Ultimatum. © 2007 Universal Studios

Most movies involving government agencies inevitably have scenes set in some sort of control room. And though the technology has evolved, the basic idea is the same: show flashing lights and flurries of activity. This type of scene is a distant cousin of the Walk-and-Talk since both share the objective of making exposition visually exciting.

The simplest method I’ve seen of writing these scenes comes from The Bourne Ultimatum screenplay. The Bourne films are chock full of CIA technicians sitting in front of banks of screens. What do these technicians do? Well, their specialty is teching. “Frenzied teching” to be exact, as used in the Waterloo Station sequence where they are tracking a reporter, Ross, while Bourne tries to throw them off and get him out.

Curiously, the screenplays for The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy don’t use the word. Frankly, Ultimatum only uses it twice. I don’t think the writers were trying to coin a new word. I can only guess that writer Tony Gilroy and the others who worked on the Bourne series (Ultimatum is also credited to Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi) got tired of describing techs furiously typing and bringing up images and otherwise describing flashing lights and flurries of activity. Hey, flashing lights can drive a guy crazy…