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Action: A jerry-rigged ‘Salt’ weapon

7 August 2010

Much has changed from Kurt Wimmer‘s original screenplay for Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. For starters, the title: Edwin A. Salt, probably the easiest part of the revision process after Tom Cruise left the project and Angelina Jolie came aboard.

Though the basic plot structure is essentially the same, the rewrites done for what has become a Jolie action franchise-in-the-making are all improvements. The action beats in the 2007 draft range from fantastic to fantastically stupid, though Wimmer writes them all with a strong narrative voice. In fact, one of the few action set pieces to remain more or less intact has Evelyn (née Edwin) going the MacGyver route to escape a CIA tactical team that has her cornered.

When compared to what was eventually filmed, I think it becomes a good example of the balance between details and suspension of disbelief.

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In general, I like the way Wimmer’s words flow — he makes good use of the ellipsis and spacing. But for me, highlighting the ingredients of the homemade bomb actually undermines my suspension of disbelief. It raises more questions than it needs to (Is there really enough ammonia nitrate in plant food to act as an explosive? If the solution is so volatile, why won’t it explode when hit by pressure from the fire extinguisher? Really, there happens to be a telescope there?), whereas the final film smartly just shows the manufacturing of the weapon. Shots of chemicals, shots of assembly, and voila: weapon.

The screenplay even needs the Winter character to narrate what’s happening, in case it isn’t clear what Salt is doing, and it shows that the phrase “the devil is in the details” clearly cuts both ways. Sometimes, details can bring life to a scene. But in this case, the less the audience is told, the better. The revisions made Salt a better action film because they don’t stop for a close up of a plant food box.

Interesting side note: While doing my Googling for this post, I found an IGN interview with Wimmer from 2002, when he was promoting Equilibrium. In it, he mentions a screenplay that’s “very much about me and my wife” called The Far-Reaching Philosophy of Edwin A. Salt.

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Goals: Justice in ‘LA Confidential’

6 August 2010

As many a screenwriter knows, it’s often a good idea (or at least a necessary obligation) to have your protagonist verbalize what he wants, for the sake of the audience’s clarity and empathy.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from L.A. Confidential, written by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson. (The following excerpts are from a March 1996 draft credited to Helgeland.) In it, Ed Exley declares his intention to apply for the Detective Bureau, much to the chagrin of Captain Dudley Smith.

I love how seemingly simple the scene appears to be. But, in hindsight, it’s actually loaded with little plants and hints that pay off as the film unfolds.

In addition to conveying Exley’s goal, this single scene touches on the following:

  1. Exley has daddy issues.
  2. Exley thinks his way bests the traditional way. In other words, he’s arrogant.
  3. How Exley will accomplish his goal. Dudley lists three things detectives do. Over the course of the film, Exley watches others (primarily, rival cop Bud White) doing the first two. He performs the third in the film’s climactic shootout, thus accomplishing his goal.
  4. Over the course of the film, Exley goes from self-serving “political animal” to hardened detective. His entire character arc is outlined.
  5. Dudley’s resistance appears to be a protective act since he was friends with Exley’s father. In hindsight, it’s because Dudley is the film’s real villain and knows Exley will get in the way.
  6. The eye glasses line becomes a recurring joke in subsequent scenes, with Exley hurriedly taking them off or putting them on, underscoring his vanity.

I list Exley’s daddy issues first because the screenplay actually has a second scene for Exley to state his goal. It occurs on page 90, by which point Exley has already begun to change. Exley’s goal of being a detective was actually his method for accomplishing a larger, more personal goal, which he explains while trying to convince Jack Vincennes to help him.

  • Click through to myPDFscripts to download the March & May 1996 drafts of the LA Confidential screenplay.

Character Intro: ‘Rear Window’ Dreams of Grace Kelly

5 August 2010

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of many things, and one of them was introducing characters, especially women. In the world of his films, women are idolized, analyzed, and obsessed over even before they are introduced on screen (or, as with Vertigo, re-introduced after being obsessively made over).

So it is with Grace Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window. In the previous scene, James Stewart’s character, LB “Jeff” Jeffries, fends off the question of marriage to his yet-to-be-seen girlfriend Lisa on the bounds that she is too perfect for an adventurer like himself. “Too beautiful, too talented, too sophisticated, too everything — but what I want.”

Lofty expectations for the character. It would’ve been a wasted opportunity to simply have her walk through the door in her first scene. Instead, writer John Michael Hayes gives her an ethereal, dream-like entrance befitting Jeff’s perception of her. It’s one that also serves as a good reminder that the first impression of a character can and should be a lasting one.

Rear Window screenplay excerpt, pages 23 - 24

Description: Once more with feeling in ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’

29 July 2010

Most screenwriters agree that, when it comes to description, you need to be cinematic. Write visuals. Write dialogue. Give the characters actions that can be performed. No prose that includes thinking, feeling, or extraneous exposition.

Unless you’re Ron Bass, who has made a pretty penny selling scripts, including 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding. (His other credits include Rain Man, Sleeping With the Enemy, and The Joy Luck Club.) Here’s an excerpt  from the opening scene between Julianne (Julia Roberts) and Digger (renamed George and played by Rupert Everett in the film) that showcases Bass’ clever use of literary prose mixed in with the more standard stage directions.

       Over the phone, we hear her answering machine...

				MAN'S VOICE (V.O., soft)
		    Hey.  It's Michael.

	And her face changes.  Warms.  Just to hear the guileless voice.

				MICHAEL (V.O.)
		    God, it must be, what, months, huh?
		    I can't wait to talk to you.  I'm
		    in Chicago at the Ritz Carlton...

	She looks impressed and surprised.  Fancy place for this guy.

				MICHAEL (V.O.)
		    Call me four in the morning,
		    whatever, we gotta talk.

	As she hangs up.  She still has that look in her eye.  Digger has
	never seen that, and he likes it very much.

				DIGGER
		    Who called? The man of the
		    moment?

	She smiles.  A sweet, natural smile that makes us like her, too.
	The Bohemian sophisticate has vanished.

				JULIANNE
		    No, no, the opposite.  That's
		    my best friend, Michael O'Neal.
		    He sounds desperate to talk.

				DIGGER
		    The wandering sportswriter.

	He pushes the risotto back her way.

				DIGGER
		    I didn't know you two had a
		    past.

	Her gaze sharpens.  Hmmn?

				DIGGER
		    The look in your eye.

	She blushes.  Shakes her head, no way.

				JULIANNE
		    Sophomore year at Yale we had
		    this one hot month.  And, you
		    know me, I got restless...

	He knows her.  She got restless.

				JULIANNE
		    So I get up the nerve to break
		    his heart.  I tell him there's
		    this dreamy exchange student
		    from Pakistan who wants to,
		    you know...

	He knows.

				JULIANNE
		    And he gets this... look.  He
		    says, "I knew I couldn't hold
		    your interest", which, of course,
		    makes me feel like the shallow
		    bitch I've always been...

	He nods, yeah.

				JULIANNE
		    Then he says, "But what makes
		    me want to cry.  Is I'm losing
		    the best friend I ever had."

	Hears the feeling.  In her voice.

				JULIANNE
		    And when he said it, I knew.
		    I felt the same.

	Silence now.  She covers with a smile.

				JULIANNE
		    So I cried.  For maybe the third
		    time in my life.  And I kissed
		    him.  And we've been best friends
		    ever since.

	Ever since.  Fingers turning her wine glass...

				JULIANNE
		    Nine years, we've seen each other
		    through everything.  Losing jobs,
		    losing parents, losing lovers...
		    travelled all over, we've had the
		    best times.  The best times of my
		    life, maybe.  Just drinking and
		    talking.  Even over a phone.

				DIGGER
		    Kindred spirits.

				JULIANNE
		    No, he's nothing like me.  He's
		    like you.  Only straight.

	No offense taken.

				JULIANNE
		    He's the salt of the earth.  Kind
		    and loyal and generous.  The one
		    constant thing in my life, is he'll
		    always be there.

				DIGGER
		    He's still in love with you.

	That stops her.  She has to say...

				JULIANNE
		    Maybe.  But it never gets in
		    the way.

	Something she probably hasn't confessed out loud before.  Digger
	understands.

				DIGGER
		    Well, he has a true friend in
		    you.

	He wants her to know he sees that.

				DIGGER
		    Whenever George tells someone
		    how steadfast I am, he always
		    makes me sound boring.

				JULIANNE
		    Solid and genuine is not boring.
		    Michael can be completely insane...

	A young waiter arrives.  Sets a boat of black squid ink beside her
	plate.

				JULIANNE
		    There was this one night in
		    Tucson, like six years ago...
		    we got amazingly drunk, I mean,
		    Keith Richards time...

	The kid tops off her glass of meursault.  Looking at her.

				JULIANNE
		    God, I haven't thought of this
		    in so long...

	The waiter hanging now.  Openly listening.

				JULIANNE
		    I can even believe we did
		    this...

	Digger sees the guy listening, gestures to her with his eyes.  So
	she looks up.

				JULIANNE
		    Could you give us a minute?

	The kid stunned, speechless.  People lose jobs for a lot less.

				JULIANNE
		    You won't miss much, I promise
		    there was no sex.

	He reddens and disappears.

				DIGGER
		    I've lost interest.

				JULIANNE
		    He takes a razor from his dinky
		    little dopp kit, cuts his fingertip,
		    takes my hand, does the same to me...

	She places the tips of her index fingers together.

				DIGGER
		    Blood oath.

				JULIANNE
		    He says, "Swear.  When we're both
		    28, if we've never been married...
		    we marry each other!"

	And laughs again.  Can you believe that?  But Digger isn't smiling.
	She wonders why.  Begins to spoon black squid ink onto her risotto.

				JULIANNE
		    See, he figured that would be a
		    sign from God, or someone of
		    comparable authority, that we'd
		    misunderstood our destinies.

	He still has this real serious look.  She's still spooning ink.

				JULIANNE
		    We never talked about it again.  I
		    don't know what made me think of...

				DIGGER (quietly)
		    I do.

	And everything.  Stops.  She lifts her spoon, mesmerized by the
	gravity of his tone.

				DIGGER
		    You'll be 28 in three weeks.
		    How old is he?

	Holy.  Fucking.  Shit.  It hits her like a ton of lead bricks.  She
	shovels some swampy risotto into her mouth, without looking.

You can watch the scene beginning about 4 minutes into this clip on YouTube. The first thing I noticed is how much leaner the final product is. The conversation was trimmed so that the information conveyed is absolutely clear. Which, in this case, is a little thing called the premise of the movie. Kinda important.

But besides that, there is the matter of these emotional descriptions. “He knows her.” “No offense taken.” “Ever since.” “He wants her to know he sees that.” “Holy. Fucking. Shit.” These aren’t visuals, per se. They’re a strange middle ground between literary prose and cold, stark stage direction. “No offense taken” tells the reader and actor what to feel and think, but lets them fill in the blanks on how this is visualized. In other words, the basic gist comes across, but there’s still lots of room for the actors to do their jobs.

This type of description does have a practical purpose: it breaks up a long monologue and spaces it out on the page. It also firmly establishes the tone of film this eventually became, a whimsical romantic comedy. I’m not sure this would work as well in a period spy thriller.

Tricky territory, obviously. I’ve seen many a script use something akin to “the look on his face says it all.” Which I hate because what is “it all?” It’s nothing and everything, a confounding non-description that makes me feel the way Bob Knight feels about the phrase “game face.” But Bass has specific feelings used very precisely in context. And really, look at his credits again. He seems to know what he’s doing.

Dialogue: Yippie-Ki-Yay ‘Die Hard’

27 July 2010

I’ve been trying to keep up with “40 Days of Screenplays” over at Go Into The Story, which is a terrific exercise (though I’m now behind). A few days ago was Die Hard, still one of the gold standards of action flicks, and I was really impressed with how all the action beats were written.

The film spawned one of cinema’s great lines. Now, I never saw the flick in theaters, don’t know how “yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” played with audiences. In fact, I only saw the film after seeing the sequel, so I wonder if it would have stood out to me if it weren’t already a catchphrase.

There’s not much I can say about the line that isn’t said in this 2007 Slate article, which breaks down the mythos of the line in wonderful, absurd detail.

                                HANS
                 Mr. Mystery Guest.  Are you still
                 there?

                                MCCLANE
                 I wouldn't think of leaving, Hans.
                 Unless you want to open the front
                 door...?

                                HANS
                 I'm afraid not.  But you have me
                 at a loss -- you know my name, but
                 who are you?
                        (scornfully)
                 Just another American who saw too
                 many movies as a child.  Another
                 orphan of a bankrupt culture who
                 thinks he's John Wayne...Rambo...
                 Marshal Dillion.

                                MCCLANE
                 Actually, I was always partial to
                 Roy Rogers.  I really dug those
                 sequined shirts.

                                HANS
                        (harsh)
                 Do you really think you have a chance
                 against us, Mr. Cowboy?

        A LIGHT blinks on the elevator.

                                MCCLANE
                        (long pause)
                 Yipee-ki-yea...mother-fucker.

        McClane goes quietly through the stairwell door and is gone
        by the time the search party steps onto this floor.

        Hans sits quietly...thinking.

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Of course, in addition to 3 sequels, Die Hard paved the way for my favorite TV dub ever…

Dialogue: Profound Profanity on HBO’s ‘The Wire’

19 July 2010

I recently finished taking in HBO’s The Wire after having heard it was nothing less than The Best TV Series In the History of Any Universe That Ever Existed. Which it might be. But not when you first start watching it. It’s nuanced. It’s expansive. It’s s-l-o-w slow. But it rewards your patience because The Wire is, in actuality, The Great American Novel (in TV Form).

One of the show’s many strengths is terrific dialogue, as evidenced by this David Simon and Ed Burns-written scene from “Old Cases” (season 1, episode 4). This is the scene where I fell in love with the show.

Most cop shows go to great lengths to depict the complexity of crime scene investigation and the craftiness and expertise of the characters by having long-winded bits of explanation, nifty special effects visualizations, and perhaps a snazzy hologram or two before finishing the scene off with a cheesy, glib witticism. This scene accomplishes all of that while the detectives verbally communicate mostly with variations of one NSFW word. It’s a brilliant example of visual communication, context, and above all, simplicity. Because sometimes, as a writer, all you need is one good, er, word.

Fuckin’ A.

(If anybody has a line on the series’ scripts, I would love you for fucking ever.)

Dialogue: Quint’s Indianapolis Story From ‘Jaws’

18 July 2010

Steven Spielberg's JawsSteven Spielberg’s favorite moment in Jaws — a sentiment shared by many, I think — is Quint’s USS Indianapolis story. As delivered by Robert Shaw, it’s a haunting recollection of his past that defines the stubborn, Ahab-like determination of the character.

According to Spielberg in the excellent behind-the-scenes documentary on the Widescreen Anniversary Collector’s Edition DVD released in 2000 (another edition was released in 2005 with a longer documentary), the Indianapolis monologue was conceived by writer Howard Sackler as a short piece. Spielberg then let Apocalypse Now co-writer John Milius take a pass at it. Milius took the ball and ran, creating a much longer, in-depth retelling. Then, Robert Shaw took his crack, working from Milius, who had worked from Sackler.

I presume the draft credited solely to Peter Benchley (adapting his novel) is the one containing Sackler’s work. This version states “Final Draft Screenplay” and, based on the documentary, I take this to mean this was Benchley’s final pass before he handed it to Spielberg to do as he pleased.

What’s interesting about this version is the different tonal context of the scene. The preceding battle of scars is portrayed as a drunken extension of the class-based bickering between Quint and Hooper, as opposed to the later draft (and film) in which their scars are the common ground between the two. In fact, Quint essentially throws the Indianapolis story in Hooper’s face as more evidence of his useless high-priced education.

                                  HOOPER
			   (persisting)
		   The scar on your arm.

				   QUINT
			   (detached)
		   Had a tattoo there.

				   HOOPER
			   (jocular)
		   Changed your mind about somebody?

				   QUINT
			   (shaking his head)
		   It said 'U.S.S. Indianapolis.'

191	CLOSE - HOOPER
	191

	His face falls as he hears this.  Quint looks at him ironi-
	cally.

				   QUINT
		   Guess you experts know about that.

	Once again Quint turns his eyes to the sea.

				   HOOPER
			   (gravely)
		   You were on her?  June '45?

				   QUINT
			   (flat and quiet)
		   On her and torpedoed right off her.
		   Into the drink with 900 other clowns
		   ...Started with 900 anyway...floating
		   in that big warm Pacific.
			   (the light surfaces again)
		   Must have been like a dinner bell
		   in there...Explosions, and half
		   the guys bleeding.  Soon as the
		   sharks came homing in on us, we
		   went by the Manual, of course...
		   Kept trying to float in groups...
		   doin' what if said, splash at 'em,
		   yell at 'em, hit 'em on the nose,
		   they won't bother you...all that.
		   They tore apart about a hundred
		   men, the first night.  And pretty
		   soon, when they stepped it up, and
		   you'd feel 'em bump you, and guys'd
		   get pulled down a couple of yards
		   away, and it got to two days...and
		   three...Well, some fellas couldn't
		   take it no more, just peeled off
		   their life-jackets, got it over with
		   ...We were in the water 110 hours.
		   Sharks averaged six men an hour.
			   (nails Hooper
			   a hard look)
		   They're all experts.
			   (spits in the ocean)

				   HOOPER
			   (weakened by the story)
		   Jesus, Quint!  You can't blame ---

	Hooper is interrupted by the boom and banshee cries of
	a distant whale.

The other screenplay draft floating around on the intertubes is credited to both Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, the film’s official writers. (Gottlieb also portrays an Amity reporter, and was cast in part because he’d be available on location for rewrites.) The Indianapolis story in this version is packed with little details, which I take to be Milius’ contribution. All of them are great, though it is overkill. Instead of ending on a note of contempt, it features the same final beat Shaw performed, with Quint verbally shrugging off the horror with a faux-prideful statement about Indianapolis’ mission.

            Brody is looking at a small white patch on Quint's other
            forearm.

					   BRODY
				   (pointing)
			   What's that one, there?

					   QUINT
				   (changing)
			   Tattoo.  Had it taken off.

					   HOOPER
			   Don’t tell me -- 'Death Before
			   Dishonor.'  'Mother.'  'Semper Fi.'
			   Uhhh...'Don't Tread on Me.'  C'mon
			   -- what?

					   QUINT
			   'U.S.S Indianapolis.'  1944

					   BRODY
			   What's that, a ship?

					   HOOPER
				   (incredulous)
			   You were on the Indianapolis?
			   In '45?  Jesus....

		Quint remembering.

189	CLOSE ON QUINT									189

					   QUINT
			   Yeah.  The U.S.S. Indianapolis.
			   June 29th, 1945, three and a half
			   minutes past midnight, two torpedoes
			   from a Japanese submarine slammed
			   into our side.  Two or three.  We
			   was still under sealed orders after
			   deliverin' the bomb...the Hiroshima
			   bomb...we was goin' back across the
			   Pacific from Tinian to Leyte.  Damn
			   near eleven hundred men went over
			   the side.  The life boats was lashed
			   down so tight to make the bomb run
			   we couldn't cut a single one adrift.
			   Not one.  And there was no rafts.
			   None.

			   That vessel sank in twelve minutes.
			   Yes, that's all she took.

			   We didn't see the first shark till
			   we'd been in the water about an hour.
			   A thirteen-footer near enough.  A
			   blue.  You measure that by judgin'
			   the dorsal to the tail.  What we
			   didn't know...of course the Captain
			   knew...I guess some officers knew
			   ...was the bomb mission had been so
			   secret, no distress signals was sent.
			   What the men didn't know was that
			   they wouldn't even list us as over-
			   due for a week.  Well, I didn't know
			   that -- I wasn't an officer -- just
			   as well perhaps.

			   So some of us were dead already --
			   in the water -- just hangin' limp
			   in our lifejackets.  And several
			   already bleedin'.  And the three
			   hundred or so laying on the bottom
			   of the ocean.

			   As the light went, the sharks came
			   crusin'.  We formed tight groups --
			   somewhat like squares in an old
			   battle -- You know what I mean --
			   so that when one come close, the man
			   nearest would yell and shout and
			   pound the water and sometimes it
			   worked and the fish turned away, but
			   other times that shark would seem to
			   look right at a man -- right into
			   his eyes -- and in spite of all
			   shoutin' and poundin' you'd hear
			   that terrible high screamin' and
			   the ocean would go red, then churn
			   up as they ripped him.  Then we'd
			   reform our little squares.

			   By the first dawn the sharks had
			   taken more than a hundred.  Hard
			   for me to count but more than a
			   hundred.  I don't know how many
			   sharks.  Maybe a thousand.  I do
			   know they averaged six men an hour.
			   All kinds -- blues, makos, tigers.
			   All kinds.

			   In the middle of the second day, some
			   of us started to go crazy from the
			   thirst.  One fella cried out he
			   saw a river, another claimed he saw
			   a waterfall, some started to drink
			   the ocean and choked on it, and
			   some left our little groups --
			   our little squares -- and swam off
			   alone lookin' for islands and the
			   sharks always took them right away.
			   It was mainly the young fellas that
			   did that -- the older ones stayed
			   where they was.

			   That second day -- my life jacket
			   rubbed me raw and that was more
			   blood in the water.  Oh my.

			   On Thursday morning I bumped up
			   against a friend of mine -- Herbie
			   Robinson from Cleveland -- a bosun's
			   mate -- it seemed he was asleep but
			   when I reached over to waken him,
			   he bobbed in the water and I saw
			   his body upend because he'd been
			   bitten in half beneath the waist.

			   Well Chief, so it went on -- bombers
			   high overhead but nobody noticin'
			   us.  Yes -- suicides, sharks, and
			   all this goin' crazy and dyin' of
			   thirst.

			   Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper, a
			   Lockheed Ventura swung around and
			   came in low.  Yes.  He did that.
			   Yes, that pilot saw us.

			   And early evenin', a big fat PBY
			   come down out of the sky and began
			   the pickup.  That was when I was
			   most frightened of all -- while I
			   was waitin' for my turn.  Just two
			   and a half hours short of five days
			   and five nights when they got to
			   me and took me up.

			   Eleven hundred of us went into that
			   ocean -- three hundred and sixteen
			   got out.  Yeah.  Nineteen hundred
			   and forty five.  June the 29th.
				   (pause)
			   Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

Shaw’s performed version is basically a condensed take on Milius. It is interesting to see what details Shaw kept. He bypassed the details that simply explained things — like why life boats weren’t widely available — and centered the speech around the emotional, impressionistic bits. I love how Shaw turned the expositional bit about his life jacket into a character trait and emphasized the inhuman ferocity of sharks with the chilling description of their eyes.

Anyway, we delivered the bomb.