Sunday, January 28, 2007

How to Write a Constructive Review

Hey guys,

It seems that I'm the toast of
TriggerStreet right now as the new January, 2007, Reviewer of the Month. (Here's the Congratulatory Thread on the message boards.)

I'm told that I'll be inducted into the Trigger Academy, their "most prestigious voting body of members," and I'll be able to vote for nominees during their On-Line Short Film Festivals.

I was also given the opportunity to write an article on a locked thread on the message boards on How to Write a Constructive Review, which I wanted to share with all my friends in the Scribosphere. I wrote this in the spirit of the "What I've Learned" articles in Esquire.

Hope you enjoy it.



As the great
Mickey Lee Bukowski once told me, "Sometimes you just gotta lay the smackdown."

However - ONLY the most thoughtless, banal, idiotic, indecipherable, hideously written DRIVEL put together under the pretense of a "screenplay" deserves a smackdown. You'll know it when you see it.

Because we're about mastering the craft, not sending it to an early grave.

I don't know why, but the more challenging the review, the happier I am. I'm a glutton for punishment, I guess. If you don't enjoy punishing yourself, then I don't know why you'd want to be a writer.

I can objectively review any script except my own. A writer needs friends who can give you good feedback.

By the way, if you're just skimming scripts and writing short, thoughtless, generic reviews, then get off the bus. You're hurting yourself and you're wasting our time.

On receiving criticism - take it like a man.

And if you're a woman - take it like a man.

Get used to criticism. Execs, producers, directors, actors, and especially film critics can be even more brutal and quite often dumber.

Be of good cheer. You're amongst friends and fellow laborers.

Don't be harsh. Almost everything about storytelling is debatable. There are almost always multiple solutions to any one problem, and your solution may not be the best one.

The only thing that's truly black & white is format & grammar.

If you don't give a flying flip about format & grammar, well, you've been warned.

Because a screenplay ought to look like a @#$%ing screenplay. And a writer ought to know how to @#$%ing write.

I know a handful of professional studio readers. Believe me when I tell you that sloppy specs and bad grammar really pisses them off. At least I'll tell you when I'm pissed.

What Dave Trottier says about format is the law. And I'm the Chief of Police.

When you criticize someone over format, there's no excuse for being wrong because you could easily look it up.

Reviewers, beware: giants do, indeed, roam TriggerStreet. So far, I've encountered 2 people whom I would consider "brilliant" and 1 flat-out "genius." No, I'm not kidding. You never saw my review for the "genius."

And yet, geniuses don't write masterpieces every single time.

Then again, you can't underestimate the work of a genius just because you didn't "get it" the first time you read it.

If you truly care about the people you know on this site, you WILL do freewill reviews for them and THANK THEM for the opportunity.

If you're writing a review for a friend, you're not doing that person any favors by not saying what's wrong with the story. Just don't be harsh about it.

The point of a review is not to condemn but to push the writer to greater heights of craftsmanship. Although some writers need a good shove.

Do you know what it really means to get your script sold and filmed and distributed to the masses? It means that your weaknesses as a writer will become public knowledge.

And if your friend sells a script that YOU reviewed and that script turned into a film and it bombed and got ripped apart by critics and audiences alike because of its glaring weaknesses in the story - that you did not point out - you failed your friend.

I read every script twice. You'd be surprised by how much more thought went into it then you first realized.

Half the battle in a review is proving the worth of your opinions. You have to prove that you really read the story, that you really know what you're talking about, and therefore, the author should seriously consider your opinions.

Don't forget to praise the writer.

Don't forget to encourage the writer.

The world looks at us and they think that we're only as good as our last script. We know better. Success is a long-term devotion to the craft. We have to give our friends the breathing room to fail and never think less of them when it happens. And believe me, it happens to everyone.

Help them up when they're down.

It's better to share all of your thoughts in your review and be open about being wrong than to say nothing at all.

Some people say nothing in their reviews because they don't want to reveal their "secret insights" on screenwriting. Let me ask you - how do you know that what you know is correct? How will you find out if you're correct unless you talk about it?

Just because you have a different vision of how to tell a story doesn't necessarily mean that the author's vision is wrong. 10 different writers could tell the same story 10 different ways and they could all turn into 4-star films.

What you're feeling while you're reading a script is quite important and should be noted whether the author wants to hear it or not.

Life is full of subtext. Movies should be, too.

If every character in a story is saying exactly what they are thinking and feeling, give suggestions about how to incorporate subtext. There are no books on subtext. Plus, thinking of creative ways to avoid on-the-nose exposition will not only improve their scenes but will also sharpen your skills as a writer.

If you're not learning something new with every review you write, you aren't giving the scripts enough thought.

I love character depth. Make the author love it, too.

Every story has to be considered on an individual basis.

So you're reading a mafia story. That doesn't mean that the narrative should be exactly like "The Godfather." Or that a comedy should also be like the "Pink Panther." Just ask yourself, "Given the parameters of this concept, was this story told as well as it could be told?"

I'll praise a script even if the story parts do not fit the whole so long as the scenes play strongly on their own and the parts work together even if the whole leaves me a little uncertain. A lot of scripts are certain about its story as a whole but are made of careless parts. Forced to choose, I would take the strong parts over the whole.

Many film critics and TS reviewers behave like merciless logicians by pointing out each and every plot hole and logic flaw and thereby rejecting entire stories because of said plot holes no matter how small they might be, as if that's the only thing that matters in a movie. Well, it all depends upon the size of the holes, doesn't it? Most film students know that almost every thriller under the sun has plot holes and flaws in logic in them but they are still accepted and beloved by many because of so many other elements of quality craftsmanship. I think there's a sliding scale involved. If a movie takes itself seriously and yet you can't buy into its incredibly flawed plot, then yeah, it officially sucks. Unless, of course, it is a movie that doesn't really take itself too seriously and is INTENDED to be wildly impossible but entertainingly so, like, say, a James Bond movie, then okay, no problem. If a serious thriller can hold water for the most part (or not leak too quickly), I won't condemn a script over a few minor leaks.

TriggerStreet and my blog have given me opportunities I never dreamed would happen. To my great surprise, I was approached by one of my all-time favorite novelists. That's no exaggeration. All-time favorite. I completely love this woman. She's married, unfortunately. Anyway, she kindly asked me to give her feedback on two scripts she wrote, one an adaptation of her very famous novel and the other an original story. You know what? She made all the same amateur mistakes everyone else makes. We've all been there.

My reviews are usually 2,000 words - a thousand words for the running notes, another thousand for the review itself. The feedback I gave to the above-mentioned famous writer was 6,000 words - each. She's not as lucky as we are to receive regular feedback on this site from true students of the craft.

To this day, she asks me who I am, and I won't tell her. Hehehe...

I invited one other quite popular writer I know to participate on TriggerStreet. For a time, he really loved it. But his reviews sucked. Yet, he's a great writer.

There's no such thing as a perfect script. But sometimes a script is good enough.

And finally, not long ago in the world of film bloggers, Andy Horbal hosted a
Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon. I loved what Peet Gelderblom wrote: "It's one thing to challenge the opinion of others, it's another to proclaim absolutes in the name of Good Taste. A true provocateur doesn't hamper by discouraging thought, but stimulates others to think differently. Why is it that some critics judge like punishing Old Testament Gods when their function is not to damn or win souls, but to sharpen minds? A critic's pen should serve as a whetstone, not a sledgehammer."

To that, I say, "amen."

Unless, of course, you've written total drivel.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Breakdown - Rear Window

I loved this line: "We come in through the window to find Lisa and Jeff smooching, but he can't keep his mind on her (WHAT?!?!?! This is Grace Kelly)." Hey, if that was me dating Grace Kelly, let me tell you, Jack the Ripper could've wiped out the neighborhood and I would've never noticed. Hehehe...

(For those of you who may be new to my blog, this article is part of Miriam Paschal's sensational series of movie breakdowns. She's studying the world's most renowned filmmakers.)

As always, just a beautiful job, Miriam.


1. 1:06 – Under the titles three blinds hang down over three windows that overlook a courtyard. As the titles play, the blinds roll up one by one. By the time "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock" appears, all three blinds are up and the window is fully exposed. 0:01:06

2. 2:29 – Fade to a shot moving through the window that quickly cuts to a slow pan around the common backyard of several city apartment buildings. The interiors of all the apartments are exposed by picture windows, just like shadow boxes. We see Mr. Songwriter just as the music switches to a commercial, which is how we know it is from a radio program. The pan continues past the balcony sleepers as they wake up to Miss Torso, who bends over with her back to the camera while wearing only a bathing suit (to show off her perfect rear end). The camera comes back inside the apartment to show the thermometer at 90° and Jeff asleep in his wheelchair. The camera runs down his left leg to take in the full cast and then around his apartment to show his smashed camera, the amazing shot that broke both the camera and his leg, and finally his girlfriend on the cover of a magazine: Lisa (played by Grace Kelly), who is both beautiful and smart. 0:03:35

3. 2:53 – The phone rings while Jeff shaves. It is his editor, Goddison. Their expository conversation establishes that Jeff is due to get his cast off in one week, that he's the best photographer the magazine has, and that he travels the world. It's interesting that in 1954 the visuals weren't deemed sufficient information that the character is a photographer and that the film-makers felt in necessary to include it in dialogue. While he talks to Goddison, Jeff watches the neighbors. In this scene, we meet the Thorwalds for the first time. Mr. Thorwald brings his wife a tray and she isn't happy with anything. Jeff continues to watch after he hangs up and sees Thorwald throw down a book in frustration. 0:06:28

4. 1:30 – An itch under his cast distracts him and when he has finished dealing with it, Mr. Thorwald is outside tending to his flower garden, which grows in a narrow strip of dirt running along a brick wall. One of the other neighbors tells him he's using too much water and he tells her to shut up. So Thorwald is established as having a nagging, semi-invalid wife and as being pretty rude. 0:07:58

5. 5:45 – I broke this scene down into three sections because the dialogue covers three distinct subjects and the shifts occur in conjunction with different camera angles that show the rest of the apartment. 0:13:43

a. 0:39 – POV the picture window. Stella, the day nurse, comes in behind Jeff and accuses him of peeping on his neighbors. She says the punishment used to be putting your eyes out with a red-hot poker. 0:08:37

b. 3:46 - Shot to take in the bed and a sideways view of the apartment. Stella makes the bed up while explaining that she has a nose for trouble and illustrating it with a story about how she predicted the stock market crash. She gives Jeff a back-rub. 0:12:23

c. 1:20 - The conversation switches to Lisa, Jeff's girlfriend. She is too perfect for Jeff and won't fit into his life-style when his leg is healed. Stella says a man and woman used to come together like a couple of taxis on Broadway, but now they have to analyze everything. She tells Jeff to marry Lisa and he tells her to make him a sandwich. She says she'll spread some common sense on it. They just don't make dialogue like this any more. 0:13:43

6. 1:23 – While Stella makes the sandwich, Jeff watches the neighbors. Thorwald goes inside and a landlord shows a pair of newlyweds around the empty apartment next door. Mr. Songwriter plays a happy tune and Miss Torso dances lasciviously. Stella comes back with the sandwich and calls Jeff a window shopper. 0:15:06

7. 5:52 – This scene is again divided by both conversation and camera angles. 0:20:58

a. 4:13 – Lisa sneaks in while Jeff sleeps and wakes him with a kiss. POV the picture window. She shows off her new $1,100 dress, which is truly fabulous. Jeff makes snide comments about how orderly and clean her life is and she opens the door to a waiter from 21, who has dinner. 0:19:19

b. 1:39 – A reverse shot from the first. Lisa is framed in the window with a beautiful studio sunset behind her. She wants Jeff to give up his rootless existence and settle in New York, where he can open a studio and shoot fashion portraits. This sounds like death to Jeff. 0:20:58

8. 2:00 – Jeff watches the neighbors while Lisa gets dinner. We meet Miss Lonelyheart, the neighbor under the Thorwald's. She sets the table for two: herself and an imaginary lover. She pours wine for two and drinks both glasses while she weeps. 0:22:58

9. 1:21 – Miss Torso is entertaining a roomful of men. Jeff tells Lisa she will never have to worry about being a Miss Lonelyheart because she's more like Miss Torso. Lisa says that Miss Torso is doing a woman's hardest job: juggling wolves. 0:24:19

10. 1:14 – Jeff and Lisa watch the Thorwalds. Mr. Thorwald brings his wife dinner on a tray with a flower. She throws the flower and he goes into the other room to call somebody (a girlfriend?). Mrs. Thorwald gets out of bed and comes in to find her husband on the phone. She throws a fit. 0:25:33

11. 1:06 – Mr. Songwriter plays the piano, which means that Lisa and Jeff will have a musical accompaniment to their dinner. This is the ALFRED-sighting. He's doing something at the mantle while Mr. Songwriter plays. Lisa brings in dinner and Jeff says it's perfect, as always. He doesn't sound happy about it. 0:26:39

12. 4:02 – This is the scene that cements the basic problem Jeff has with Lisa. It is an argument after dinner. She goes on and on about how it doesn't make sense that he can't settle in New York and work regular hours. He tries to get a word in edgewise, but she won't stop. Finally he tells her to shut up and then she calls him rude. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it's a funny, old-fashioned argument and presents Lisa in a stereotypical female role. It's also a way of exposing a problem that isn't considered good film-making any more. 0:30:41

13. 0:46 – Jeff muses on Lisa's parting words and watches the neighbors, but their windows are all dark and all is quiet in the courtyard. As he watches the darkened windows and drawn blinds, a woman cries out and glass breaks. 0:31:27

14. 2:34 – A rainstorm breaks over the city. Jeff slips in and out of sleep in his wheelchair and watches the neighbors. The balcony sleepers wake up and nearly kill themselves getting their mattress inside. Thorwald leaves with his sales case. Jeff checks his watch. It's 2am, which fades to 2:30am. Thorwald returns. Mr. Songwriter is drunk and full of self-loathing. He scatters his music all over the room. Thorwald leaves again. 0:34:01

15. 1:29 – Miss Torso comes home with a man and wrestles with him at her door to keep him from coming in. Thorwald returns. Jeff falls asleep again. 0:35:30

16. 0:33 – Dawn. Thorwald leaves his apartment with a woman dressed for traveling while Jeff sleeps through it. 0:36:03

17. 3:15 – Morning. Stella massages Jeff while Miss Torso does her morning dance routine. Mrs. Balcony-sleeper sends her little dog down in his basket with her pulley contraption and he runs off to have doggy fun. Stella and Jeff discuss the neighbors. A shout draws their attention and they see Thorwald trying to shoo the dog away from his flower-bed. The dog is digging at the end. 0:39:18

18. 3:09 – Stella leaves. Jeff watches Thorwald first through binoculars and then through his telephoto lens. The block construction of the apartments is reflected in the lenses of both, which is a nice effect. Through binoculars, Jeff sees Thorwald cleaning his display case. This is a medium shot. The telephoto lens gives us a close-up. This is when Jeff sees Thorwald in his kitchen wrapping knives and saws in newspaper. 0:42:27

19. 6:27 – Night. A slow pan around the courtyard shows Mr. Songwriter cleaning and Mrs. Balcony-sleeper bringing her little dog up in his basket. We come in through window to find Lisa and Jeff smooching, but he can't keep his mind on her (WHAT?!?!?! This is Grace Kelly). He thinks Thorwald has murdered his wife and asks how you would cut up a human body. Lisa's pissed off and tells Jeff that a murderer would never parade his crime in front of an open window. Jeff shows her that Thorwald has a rope-wrapped suitcase in the bedroom and the mattress is rolled up. Lisa gets very serious and asks Jeff to tell her the story from the beginning. 0:48:54

20. 0:54 – Jeff sits in the empty apartment with his hand on the phone. As soon as it makes a tiny sound, he picks it up. It's Lisa, calling from across the street with information about Thorwald: his name and address. Inside his apartment, Thorwald smokes in the darkness. His cigarette glows red out of the blackness as he sucks in smoke. 0:49:48

21. 3:14 – Stella puts breakfast in front of Jeff and then grosses him out by speculating on what Thorwald did to his wife. When she says the trunk is going to start leaking, he gives up entirely. Then they see movers come in for the trunk and Stella runs across to get the name off the truck, but she misses it. Thorwald makes a long-distance call. We know it's long distance because Jeff tells us when he talks to himself. This dialogue trick has fallen out of style for the most part. 0:53:02

22. 2:36 – Enter Tom Doyle, Jeff's cynical cop buddy from the war. He doesn't buy Jeff's theory that Thorwald killed his wife, but says he will check it out. Thorwald catches the dog digging in his flowers again and kindly shoos it off. 0:55:38

23. 4:36 – Doyle watches Miss Torso as he gives his report. According to the neighbors, Thorwald put his wife on a train to the country and a postcard from her confirms this. Doyle explains why he can't get a search warrant and that he can't just go poking around in the apartment. He leaves Jeff frustrated. 1:00:14

24. 11:22 – The plot thickens. The first part of this scene is outside with the neighbors and the second part is inside with Lisa. 1:11:36

a. 5:23 – The dog goes down in his basket while Miss Lonelyheart makes a big production about getting ready to go out. Mr. Songwriter is throwing a party, which starts when two beautiful women arrive. Miss Torso has a dance partner and a coach over. Miss Lonelyheart goes to the restaurant across the street and sits in the window. While Jeff watches through the telephoto lens, Thorwald crosses in front of her, which is a truly creepy shot. Raymond Burr had the perfect face for this role. Up in his apartment, he lays out his laundry. Jeff calls Doyle, then sees Thorwald with a woman's purse, which he hides in his luggage. 1:05:37

b. 5:59 – Lisa comes in wearing a fabulous green outfit with a loose jacket. Jeff gives her a blow-by-blow of the previous scene. This kind of thing happens throughout. If there weren't so much of this expository dialogue, the film would be a lot shorter. But the sequence gives the cameraman a chance to insert a full-length shot of Grace Kelly in her lovely outfit. She gives Jeff a long explanation about women, their purses, and their jewelry, which was probably valid in 1954, but not so much now. She surmises that the woman Thorwald left with was not his wife. Lisa is also trying to prove to Jeff that she can fit into his life style and has come prepared to spend the night. This is another example of how much things have changed since then. He worries what his landlord will say. Mr. Songwriter's party is in full swing. Then Lisa takes off her jacket and reveals a white halter top. Wow. 1:11:36

25. 10:14 – The plot finishes thickening. In a modern movie, this section would take place over the course of many short scenes. In 1954 it happened during two very long scenes. 1:21:50

a. 6:35 - Doyle comes in and sees Lisa's overnight case, which leads to some raised eyebrows and snide comments from both men. Lisa comes in and repeats her information about women and their purses. Doyle has some pointed comments about female intuition, and then brings out his ace in the hole. The trunk was picked up by a Mrs. Anna Thorwald. Doyle leaves. 1:18:11

b. 3:39 – Lisa and Jeff watch the neighbors. Miss Lonelyheart comes home with a man, but it doesn't work out because he gets fresh (attempted date rape as we call it now) and she slaps him. Lisa and Jeff discuss how some things are private and "rear window ethics." Then she says they are ghouls because they're disappointed he didn't kill his wife. 1:21:50

26. 2:36 – Lisa shows off her negligee, but she and Jeff are interrupted in their romantic moment by a shriek from across the way. Mrs. Balcony-sleeper has looked down to discover that her little dog is dead in the courtyard. Miss Lonelyheart comes out to put his little body into his basket so Mrs. Balcony-sleeper can bring him up. Mr. Songwriter interrupts his party to watch. Miss Torso joins the neighbors while Mrs. Balcony-sleeper rages at her neighbors and challenges the murderer to come forward. Then Lisa notices that the only neighbor who isn't involved is Thorwald. His apartment is dark, but he is there because his cigarette glows red out of the darkness. Did the dog know too much? 1:24:26

27. 3:21 – Lisa and Stella stand behind Jeff as he looks through his lens. He compares the flowers now to a picture he took two weeks ago and says that the flowers are lower, so something was buried there. That's why the dog was digging. They see that Thorwald is packing to leave and Jeff writes him a note: "What have you done with her?" Lisa leaves to deliver it under his door. 1:27:47

28. 6:47 – Lisa takes the note over while Jeff and Stella watch. She gets down the stairs just in time to hide from Thorwald. He comes down to find her, but she hides near Miss Lonelyheart's window. Inside, Miss Lonelyheart lays out a bunch of pills and a glass of water. Stella is worried, but Lisa comes back and the hunt for Thorwald makes them forget Miss Lonelyheart. Lisa and Stella want to dig where the dog was digging and Jeff calls Thorwald with a ruse to get him out of the apartment so they can dig safely. He gets out a pack of flashbulbs and tells them he will signal with one if Thorwald comes back. 1:34:34

29. 4:00 – Lisa and Stella go over and climb over a wall in high heels and dresses with a shovel. Women were different back then. They did everything in high heels and dresses. Jeff calls Doyle and talks to the maid (I swear her accent implied that she was black). Miss Lonelyheart writes a note and Jeff says to himself, "Stella was wrong about Miss Lonelyheart." Down in the garden Stella and Lisa find nothing in the flowerbed. Stella comes back while Lisa climes into Thorwald's apartment. Jeff is beside himself, but can't do anything. Stella sees Miss Lonelyheart with her pills and water and tells Jeff to call the police. Up in his apartment, Mr. Songwriter plays a tune and Miss Lonelyheart gets up to go to her window. Stella says, "The music stopped her." 1:38:34

30. 5:38 – Stella and Jeff see Lisa in Thorwald's apartment and a reflection of the hallway that shows Thorwald coming back. Since Jeff is already calling the police for Miss Lonelyheart, he reports an assault before it happens. When Thorwald begins to beat Lisa up, the police are already on their way. With the police in the room, Lisa puts her hands behind her to show Jeff that she has Mrs. Thorwald's wedding ring (a big piece of evidence). Unfortunately, Thorwald sees her motioning to Jeff and looks across the courtyard to Jeff's apartment. The police arrest Lisa, so Stella and Jeff get bail money together. While they are doing this, they do not see Thorwald leave his apartment. Doyle calls and Jeff goes over all the evidence (again!). Stella leaves with the bail money and Doyle says he will go down to meet her and make sure Lisa is okay. This all sets up that Jeff is left alone in his apartment. 1:44:12

31. 2:24 –The phone rings and Jeff speaks before he realizes who is on the other end, which gives away to Thorwald (who is on the other end) that he's the neighbor who knows. Thorwald asks him if he wants money and then hangs up. Jeff realizes that Thorwald is on his way over. He gets his box of flashbulbs and rolls his wheelchair into deep shadow. 1:46:36

32. 3:15 – Thorwald comes in and asks Jeff what he wants. He crosses the apartment and Jeff sets off a flashbulb, which temporarily blinds Thorwald, but doesn't stop him. He continues to cross to Jeff, stopping with each flash to let his eyes adjust. There's an interesting special effect to show the flash from Thorwald's POV. Just as Thorwald reaches him, Jeff sees that Lisa and Doyle have arrived back at Thorwald's apartment. He calls out to them. He and Thorwald struggle and Thorwald dumps him out the window. He clings to the sill, but the weight of his cast pulls him down. Then we get one of those great Hitchcock shots from above as he falls to the bricks below. Doyle asks Stella if she wants to see what's left of Mrs. Thorwald, which is still in the apartment. She says, "No thanks. I don't want any part of it," and then realizes that she hasn't exactly been acting like that all along. 1:49:51

33. 1:43 – The final scene wraps up all the stories with the same kind of pan shot that started the movie. Miss Lonelyheart helps Mr. Songwriter paint his apartment and tells him his music has been an inspiration to her. Mrs. Balcony-sleeper teaches her new puppy to ride down in the basket. And Miss Torso welcomes home her dumpy boyfriend with a hug and a kiss. The first thing he wants is a good meal. Inside Jeff's apartment, we find that the temperature has dropped and that he now has two casts: one on each leg. Lisa is reading a book about life on the road in a foreign land, but when she sees that he's asleep, she sneaks out her fashion magazine. 1:51:34

There are 33 major scenes that average 3 minutes and 23 seconds in length. Fifteen of them, or almost half, are over 3 minutes long and only three of them are less than a minute long. The total length of the film itself, not counting ending credits, is 1 hour, 11 minutes and 34 seconds.

The cinematographer, Robert Burks, used reflections – in the lens and inside individual apartments – to add depth to the effect of the apartments as window boxes. Thirty years later, Stephen Burum was inspired by these reflections when he designed the shots for Body Double and included mirrors in many of the scenes.

It's interesting to watch this movie from the perspective of fifty years later. Styles have changed, and so have attitudes, customs, social shorthand, and how movies are made. Scenes are shorter these days and most film-makers would dismiss much of the dialogue in Rear Window as overly expository. The custom of so many characters repeating the same evidence in several scenes seems to be left over from stage plays when one character goes over all the evidence in the third act and then points to the culprit and cries, "Ah ha!" I believe this convention was also used in the Hercule Poirot movies adapted from Agatha Christie's novels (written in the thirties).

But Hitchcock was an innovative film-maker and much of what he did was original and compelling, which is why so many modern film-makers still pay homage with imitation. He is famous for his moving shots during dramatic moments to heighten the drama. In Rear Window he used one when Jeff fell out of the window at the end. In North by Northwest it was Cary Grant running across the field with the plane behind him. In The Birds it was all those great shots of people running away from flocks of birds. And his most famous of these type of shots is in Psycho when Detective Arbogast fell down the stairs.

The real strength of this movie is how the lives of all the neighbors are revealed and how some of their lives intertwine with the main plot. Each one is brought vividly to life with a few deft shots and choice bits of dialogue. Hitchcock wisely did not rely on the central mystery, but on how it illuminated the lives of his characters.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Kubrick's "Napoleon" - Part V


Despite the brief exchange with the Chambers of Directory who practically accused Napoleon of abandoning his army to return to France (which was due to the fact that an English attack on France itself was imminent), despite the talk of divorcing Josephine, which was put off for later, despite his utterly unconvincing reconciliation with her, and despite all the openly discussed conspiracies throughout the bars and coffee shops of Paris to overthrow the government… Napoleon would become 1st Consul and Head Executive of his own Empire.

And we’re given his coronation at Notre Dame (pictured above).

In this moment, which could have been the highlight of the entire film, Kubrick makes a great and memorable character stroke with Napoleon. When the Pope reaches for the Crown of Charlemagne, Napoleon takes it from him and places it on his own head.

“Napoleon looks with an air of pride and satisfaction at Josephine, as she advances towards him at the altar, and when she kneels down, tears fall upon her clasped hands, raised to heaven -- or, rather to Napoleon.” The narrator tells us, “On December 2, 1804, Napoleon was made Emperor of France. He would later say: ‘I found the crown lying in the gutter and I picked it up.’”

In the Dining Room in Tuileries, Napoleon and Josephine sit at the ends of a long table hosting beautiful women and various “important guests.” Napoleon puts down the leaders of the revolution who had failed to overthrow the government. He gives a speech that illustrates his more conservative philosophies about the nature of man.

“The revolution failed because the foundation of its political philosophy was in error. Its central dogma was the transference of original sin from man to society. It had the rosy vision that by nature man is good, and that he is only corrupted by an incorrectly organized society. Destroy the offending social institutions, tinker with the machine a bit, and you have Utopia -- presto! -- natural man back in all his goodness.”

Laughter at the table. Napoleon continues.

“It's a very attractive idea but it simply isn't true. They had the whole thing backwards. Society is corrupt because man is corrupt -- because he is weak, selfish, hypocritical and greedy. And he is not made this way by society, he is born this way -- you can see it even in the youngest children. It's no good trying to build a better society on false assumptions -- authority's main job is to keep man from being at his worst and, thus, make life tolerable, for the greater number of people.”

And as Napoleon gives this speech, he offers a telling look to his Major-domo, who then proceeds to walk up to one of the beautiful women at the table, Madame Trillaud, and spill wine on her dress. Napoleon offers to take her to the other room to get her some “water” for the stain. They leave. The guests resume their conversation.

Josephine is distracted and agitated.

In a locked room near his office, Napoleon and Madame Trillaud kiss passionately and strip out of their clothes. Josephine desperately knocks on the door and begs Napoleon to return to the party.

He tells her to give him five minutes.

That night, the door is definitively shut by Napoleon on any chance for reconciliation with Josephine. He tells her she must accept the idea that they will have to be divorced soon and that from now on, they will have to sleep in separate bedrooms.

“But,” she says, “you will not... be safe...”

“Not be safe? What on earth are you talking about?”

“In case of a... surprise attack… at night... I am such a... light sleeper... I could wake you... I could scream.”

Later, she tries to convince him that she’s been seeing a doctor and felt that by using the “waters of Plombiers,” she might have a better chance of conceiving a child for him.

Napoleon placates her.

The war with England continues with a naval battle in the English channel, which was decidedly lost. We see an “eerie shot of two French ships lying on the sea bottom,” which we know now was designed this way to save money by not showing a real naval battle. And ya know, I really love this shot. Instead of a visual indulgence of warring ships, we get one eerie shot that makes a visual statement – the French lost.

Napoleon also lost and regained his authority over Italy, which unfortunately, invited a war with Austria and Russia who were also aligned with England. And thus, we are introduced to Tsar Alexander I of Russia (pictured below), “who had ascended the throne at the age of 24, after the Palace Guard murder of his father, Tsar Paul, and now had rival pretensions to Napoleon as the arbiter of Europe.”

Napoleon had so completely destroyed the Russians at the battle of Austerlitz that our first look at this man, Tsar Alexander I, is of him weeping on the side of a road surrounded by his ruined, decimated army. Yet, this man will bring about the end of Napoleon's reign.

Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette"

I just wanted to share these clips and pictures as part of our series on Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon.

The costume designer for Marie Antoinette, Milena Canonero, who just received an Oscar nomination for her gorgeous work in that film, was also the same costume designer for Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. She also worked with him on A Clockwork Orange. She would have likely been the person Stanley would have turned to had he been given a chance to make his Napoleon. I could not help but watch Coppola's film and think frequently of Stanley and his dreams of Napoleon.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

"I'm going to get my ass handed to me"

No worries, Indy.

Hear now, my friends, the words of David Koepp in his
first interview since he had found (buried at the end of this long and sordid tunnel we call Indiana Jones 4) the treasure of the green light.

Does he tell you that the movie is going to be SENSATIONAL? That he can’t WAIT to see how it turns out? That it really was worth the wait? And that it will be a superb end to an iconic franchise?

No. This is what he says:

“I’m going to get my ASS handed to me on some level, even by my fellow filmmakers or the audience.”

No worries, Indy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Day of Kudos

The chart above is something I’ve been meaning to share. It’s the perfect chart to map any romantic relationship in your stories. Hehehe

I just have to say this. I’m feeling a little dizzy and overwhelmed right now by all the great things going on with the people around me.

The first concerns our very dear friend and excellent writer,
Nena Eskridge, who gave us the subtext post on Chinatown. In that post, I mentioned her great script (now called Stray). Well, it’s been nominated for the January, 2007, Screenplay of the Month. Let me tell you, this is a most deserving recognition. Her script has many strengths - economical words, great character depth of its protagonist, Jennifer Davis, and it's wildly entertaining. The way Nena made a connection in the opening and closing scenes makes a very clear statement about this poor girl’s vicious cycle of violence. Nena did such an outstanding job with her story. I am so very excited for her.

Another good friend,
Pat (GimmeABreak), got permission from Stephen King to send him adaptation proposals for his short stories. Her new scripts, Every Secret Thing and Bits and Pieces, are Top Ten favorites on TriggerStreet and such great fun. (My review of Bits and Pieces is forthcoming – so sorry!) Pat’s really delivered the goods here and I am hoping for the best. She deserves success.

Even in our own scribosphere, I am in all honesty struggling to find time to write my own articles because everyone else is putting out such great material. I can't stop reading!

Billy Mernit has two new noteworthy posts on how to receive notes
here and here.

Carl Salminen has been posting a “Script to Screen” series on his blog as he brings his Undead High School to the big screen. Laugh now. You know that with most writers, a movie with a title like that would be utterly rancid. But with Carl, it’s different. The man really is a talented, devoted, student of the craft. He’s always looking for ways to incorporate subtext and make his scenes interesting, which really excites me. He has a new script on TriggerStreet, The Tavern, which also frequents the Top Ten list. It’s great. “A wounded man wanders into a tavern.” It’s a metaphor for what it means to be heroic, and it’s also an examination of the difference between vengeance and justice. I loved it. In any case, Carl’s “Script to Screen” posts on his blog covers subjects ranging from selling yourself to the art of revisions and relationships. I can’t wait for the movie!

Every single article since the New Year on MaryAn Batchellor’s blog from
Contriving Conflict to Sidekicks to Symbolism and Foreshadowing has been outstanding.

And I just have to say that Unk is kicking ass with his recent posts on “Depth Charging Your Characters”
here and here. (I’d like to contribute to this discussion in a day or two because I’ve been meaning to blog about Character Development Sheets.) Great articles, Unk.

Our good friend,
Matt Spira, got his first paycheck as a screenwriter.

Another dear friend, Ger, the BRILLIANT comedy writer (whom I wrote about extensively in my
Comedy Writing Secrets post) is within an angel’s breath of getting one of those comedies to the big screen.

For the whopping 3 of you who have been digging my series on Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, we are going to finish this bad boy in great style. His downfall is absolutely breathtaking. The best is yet to come.

I’ve got another post on the come, one of Miriam’s great movie breakdowns. She continues her series on the world’s most renowned filmmakers and we will see her thoughts on Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

I love it.

Something special is in the air, wouldn’t you agree?

I’m excited.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Let's Analyze 2 Scenes

These scenes are similar in the sense that they both force arguments between two characters in order to establish a "backstory."

The first comes from Babel. This is the first and only scene in the entire movie in which we see these two characters have a real conversation.

Before the clip starts, Susan (Cate Blanchett) had asked Richard (Brad Pitt), "Why are we here?" Richard thought for a moment and responded, "To be alone." She looked at the people around them and huffed, "Alone," as if it was some kind of joke. There's a small argument about ice cubes, and then we see what follows in the clip:

Next, Children of Men, which tries to accomplish similar goals.

Do these scenes work?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What’s a spec writer to do?

Has anyone read the latest issue of Creative Screenwriting magazine? I don’t know why I keep reading this tripe, because it never fails to piss me off.

Consider, my friends, the latest evolution of brilliant contemporary thought: Ron Suppa’s “The Business of Screenwriting: Even Insomniacs Can Dream.” The logline: “In a market filled with sequels, remakes and adaptations, what’s a spec writer to do?”

Hmm. I wonder. Let’s read it, shall we?

Ron spends maybe 600 words talking about how he can’t sleep and went to a doctor and started writing down his dreams on a pad of paper and he still couldn’t come up with an original idea. Then he spends the last 600 words on how people are perfectly happy plunking down $9 a pop to see the same crap every Friday night. He quoted Darren Aronofsky who, after feeling the sting of criticism for his latest film, The Fountain, remarked that the same people who complain about how Hollywood never does anything different attacks you when you do. And then came all the bile about how there’s only a dozen basic plots at best in storytelling anyway, how the same basic characters always get recycled, and how even television shows bank on familiarity.

And then he ends the article by basically saying, “You know what? Writers should be original. They have to get noticed by breaking new ground and taking risks. So go write that pet project of yours.”

That was helpful, Ron. Thanks.

You guys at Creative Screenwriting are really killing me with this bottom-feeding crud. Who came up with this idea, huh? THIS, an article about ORIGINALITY from the guy who produced
Maui Heat! (That was his last project, by the way, and that was 10 years ago.) This guy has ONE writing credit under his belt, a 1989 movie called Riding the Edge, and I can’t find a single review of it with the exception of ONE user comment on IMDB who called it “absurd but entertaining.”

And hey, Ron, I understand. I really do. You dried up creatively. It happens. And in all reality, it honestly does not matter to me if you have any credits AT ALL. I know some brilliant, unproduced screenwriters who I will listen to ‘til the day I die simply because they are brilliant and they know what they are talking about.

But if you can’t write an article that engages and inspires fellow screenwriters on some kind of substantive level, then get off the bus, man. You’re wasting my time with this whiny bullshit about how there’s nothing new under the sun. Because let me tell you something. Those are the words of a man who has no passion and no vision.

So let me ask the question:

In a market filled with sequels, remakes and adaptations, what’s a spec writer to do?

First of all, know who you're pitching and make sure you're pitching the right stories to the right people. If you’re pitching to a mainstream studio that's notoriously safe and heavy on sequels, then pitch a new franchise. They'll listen. And then back up your idea with a 4-star spec. If doors aren’t opening, then look abroad for wide-open opportunities you never considered before, like the
Asian Film Market. Or make connections with aspiring filmmakers at the local level.

Be great. Be strong. Be of good cheer. You're amongst friends. Study psychology. Study philosophy, religion, and mythology. Study contemporary issues. Study amateur scripts that fail. Study pro scripts that fail. Study legendary screenplays by true mold-breakers like Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. Study history. Study cinema. What hasn’t been done before? What’s being done now that’s wrong? What’s missing in today’s movies? How can you manipulate structure and technigue to find originality?

Storytelling will never die. There is an endless number of great stories that haven’t been told yet, but there are few writers today who can tell those stories really well. The possibilities for new and exciting characters are endless. The variety of contradictions that could be built into characters to have depth are innumerable. Why should Hamlet be the character with the most depth? Who the hell says there can’t be a modern Shakespeare? Or another golden age of cinema?

Above everything, master the craft. Make every detail count. Never, ever sell yourself short. You have to have vision, passion, a love of films, and a true devotion to the craft. You have to be willing to try and fail. You have to push yourself and others. You have to give and receive honest feedback. You have to learn to take criticism. You have to engage other writers in a constructive discussion about the craft. You have to be capable of dealing with the absurdities of the business. And if you fail, fail spectacularly, and go down swinging with the most unforgettable stories ever written.

As Jim Emerson said in his review of The Fountain,
“I'd much rather watch somebody shoot for the moon when the stakes are sky-high than sit back while they play it safe.”

That’ll be $6.95, please.

Or $9.95 if you live in Canada.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Because This Inspires Me

In the mid-90's, a pair of magazine writers toured the Lucasfilm archives at Skywalker Ranch and got to physically handle the props from Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Frickin' bastards.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Kubrick’s “Napoleon” - Part IV

Above is a clip from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette.

In Kubrick’s Napoleon, we are treated to a very similar scene. In an exterior shot of Tuileries Palace (similar to the end of Coppola’s scene), we see thousands of people standing around with torches.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are forced out onto the balcony.

Except in Stanley’s script, we are given some blistering commentary from Napoleon:

“Incredible,” he says. “How could he let that rabble into the Palace? If he had ridden out among them on a white horse, they would all have gone home. If he lacked the courage to do that, a whiff of grapeshot -- and they would still be running.”

(A “grapeshot” is a nasty little trick with a cannon. Instead of a cannon ball, a grapeshot is a canvas bag packed with loose metal, chainlinks, shards of glass, rocks, etc. It’s like a cannon-sized shotgun blast into a crowd. On handling civillian uprisings, one is quickly convinced that cannons are the best way to go. Napoleon said, “The numbers are not particularly relevant. You are not up against soldiers – this is a mob, and they will run as soon as things become sufficiently unpleasant.”)

Indeed. Let’s talk war.

I'd like to cover two specific sequences that span twenty pages.

  1. His first Italian campaign, and
  2. His tour through Egypt.
As we watch French troops pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers, we’re told by the narrator:

“With the Italian campaign, Napoleon steps onto the stage as a figure of European importance. A dozen victories in as many months would be announced in dramatic and highly colored bulletins. The battles of the revolution had been so far mainly defensive. Now, there was revealed a new kind of offensive warfare such as had not been seen in Europe for centuries.”

Napoleon tells us, “The art of war is a simple art. Everything is in the execution. There is nothing vague in it. It is all common sense. Theory does not enter into it. The simplest moves are always the best.”

We’re given a huge battle sequence between the French and the Austrians. This is one of the battles that Kubrick would have recreated perfectly with his thousands of Yugoslavian and Romanian soldiers. One can imagine that before this movie had been released, there would have been rumors swirling about the cost and number of men Kubrick used to create these battles. And those rumors would have actually given people a reason to see the film. In fact, the battle sequences could have been one of the high points of the film.

Yet, in the script, this battle does not last even two pages. With good reason, because it doesn’t really serve the story. There’s nothing at stake here. We know Napoleon will win. We know he won’t die. We’re not really worrying about anything. This is nothing more than the expansion of the French empire. This is about Napoleon’s techniques and strategies. This is just a short visual indulgence of an expensive battle that, in the great scheme of things, had little meaning beyond satisfying our curiosity. It's about the advancement of a massive number of French troops who keep moving slowly toward their enemies despite the volleys of Austrian fire (and countless French troops dying) until the Austrians are eventually forced to decide whether they are going to run or face the attackers. Panic sets in. The Austrians run.

But knowing Kubrick, once he started exploring this battle on film, he would have latched on to some dramatic visual moments he discovered in the process that would’ve been moving to watch. Then the sequence would have become meaningful about something. Perhaps the fact that this battle has no purpose BECOMES the point? Then the scene turns into how war serves no purpose and look at all these men die for nothing. Or it could have been about the terror of Napoleon's ways. It all depends upon how this scene is shot. I believe Stanley would have discovered some kind of meaning here and found a stylistic approach to making a statement that's not reflected in the script.

And that is what makes Stanley Kubrick fascinating.

Following this battle, we see the “the triumphal entrance of the French army into Milan. Wildly enthusiastic crowds, floral arches, tricolors everywhere, glittering military bands, flags, columns upon columns of French troops, the smart clattering of the cavalry.”

As we watch this triumphant scene, the narrator tells us, “Napoleon would soon arouse the resentment of the Directory in Paris, exceeding his authority, making political decisions and treaties like a Roman Conqueror, enlarging his role to ruler of Italy. Only his tremendous success and ever increasing popularity prevented the Directory from replacing him.”

And then, as if reacting to the narrator, we hear voice over from Napoleon: “From that moment on, I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee beneath me, as if I were being carried away up to the sky.”

Napoleon and Josephine make love in a Milan palace. We hear Josephine say in a voice over, “My dear Therese, the journey here to Milan was the most difficult and uncomfortable imaginable -- I am bored to death. My husband doesn't love me, he worships me. I fear he will go mad with love. Worse than that, I fear for my poor Hippolyte. We may have been indiscreet on the journey, and I think Joseph and Junot suspect something.”

In the next scene, Napoleon meets Captain Hippolyte Charles. He asks Captain Charles if he had any difficulties escorting his wife to Milan. No, he didn’t, Charles tells him. Napoleon thanks him, and Charles leaves. Then Napoleon pulls out an anonymous letter he had received. He reads it out loud to Joseph, his brother, and Junot, one of his Generals. The letter tells Napoleon that Josephine is having an affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles. Junot and Joseph tell him with carefully measured words that they know nothing about this matter.

From page 43 – 52, we’re given Napoleon’s famous tour through Egypt on a “romantic dream of conquest” following in the footsteps of Alexander’s march into India. They see the Sphinx and the Pyramids. They encounter a few minor skirmishes with the mameluke cavalry.

While a French-Arabian orgy takes place in the Mansion Murad Bey, Napoleon’s hard at work dictating his
memoirs to Bourrienne
. Junot enters. Napoleon had sent for him. We learn that the Bonaparte family is behaving quite coolly toward Josephine. In fact, Joseph refuses to give Josephine money that Napoleon ordered him to give to her. He asks Junot for an explanation. We learn that Junot wrote that anonymous letter, that the Bonaparte family knows about her affair, and they hate her for it.

This scene, probably the weakest portion of the entire script, is full of talk and melodrama and lasts from pages 45-52. Napoleon is almost as naive about the affair as he was the “young street-walker” in Lyon.

Napoleon returns to Paris - yet another huge cinematic shot full of crowds, flags, and Napoleon in an open carriage waving at everyone. Below is an 1810 painting by Jean-Pierre Franque, which was an allegory of the State of France before Napoleon's return from Egypt.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Father Max

Hey guys,

I will finish my series on Kubrick’s Napoleon next week.

A writer has to give credit where credit is due. Our good friend,
Bob Thielke, posted “Revision 4” of his Father Max story. (I wrote about an earlier draft in a post called On Character Arcs.) Ya know, I cannot deny the great craftsmanship behind this story. It is a great, powerful, 4-star script. You will absolutely weep at the end.

Below is my recent free-will review of this story, which chronicled a number of ways Bob made improvements to his script. Even if you don’t know the story, the lessons behind this revision, such as trimming the action lines, removing on-the-nose lines of dialogue, etc, are good ones for any screenwriter.

Here’s the review. Hope you enjoy it.


A 4-Star Script

This is a major overhaul of what was already a good story. The result is quite literally a 4-star script. It's one of the best scripts of the year.

There are a couple of comments I'd like to make, because I think there are some lessons to be learned in this revision.

Consider all the ways Bob, without adding more pages, gave himself room to expand upon his subplots in Auschwitz, particularly Fritsch's storyline, by cleaning up his story in the following ways:

1) He trimmed his action lines. If you read the earlier draft and pay close attention, many many paragraphs are shorter. Bob can write wonderfully descriptive prose but that's not screenwriting. Story comes first and your action lines have to serve the story with brevity and clarity. Period. A script is not about how pretty the action lines are written, it's about WHAT those actions are and you have to convey those ideas with beautiful simplicity.

2) He removed the flashback structure of the earlier draft, which was absolutely the right decision. That kind of structure really wasn't necessary here because we didn't hear or need narration from Francis in order to tell this story. And by removing this structure, it should comes as a SURPRISE to us in the end that Francis is not only converted but he knows the Pope. It's no secret that I dislike flashback structures and people love to point out "Titanic," "Double Indemnity," and "Amadeus" to me. There are exceptions, but amateurs use it so frequently in their scripts, I think it's better to avoid it altogether because it's become so clichéd. A non-flashback structure is, in fact, more difficult work, and ultimately, more impressive if you pull it off really well. I think newbie writers are drawn to the flashback structure because it "feels right" to connect the opening and closing scenes. And yes, it should feel right. Good movies quite often make connections between the opening and closing shots, but you don't need a flashback structure to do it. You connect the visuals and the images. Here, Bob simply connects the opening and closing shots with doves.

Let's talk about on-the-nose exposition.

One of your top priorities in doing any revision is to look for ways around on-the-nose exposition in your dialogue, which will almost always improve any scene.

Consider the scene on page 3 with the Nicolas and Francis sitting in the flatbed truck. In the earlier draft, we watched the boys sit in the truck and listen to Father Max on the radio. Afterwards, we get some on-the-nose exposition from Francis: "Between the paper and this radio show of his, when does he find time to pray?" We didn't need that line to establish the fact that Max had a paper and a radio show because we just watched Max hand off his newspapers and we just heard him on the radio. So that line is gone. It's also boring to watch those boys sitting in a truck listening to the radio. Now that Bob freed up some space for himself, we have a great new sequence. The boys turn up the radio to hear Father Max but we leave the truck. While we HEAR Max talk about forces of secrecy and corruption, we WATCH a German man struggle to get money and food, and then he walks by an Old Jewish Man. The German spits in his face. And as we hear Max's tough talk against the Zionists (and also the Freemasons), we see this elderly Jewish man sit in his home with his wife and nervously peer out the window and we might think that Max is inadvertently contributing to the hatred of the Jews. And we might wonder about Max's motivations, which will of course get clarified in the next few pages. It's a great, 4-star sequence.

Consider this scene:

There is a new scene where Francis comes home to discover that his son has been taken away by the Nazis for Aryan indoctrination. In an earlier scene, Francis and Gert discuss the possibility that their son, Peter, might be taken away. Francis tries to convince her (and himself) he won't be taken away because "the age limit is six" and Peter is eight. He comes back home to find that, in fact, the Nazis will take any child at any age. When Bob first wrote this new scene, he had Francis discover that Peter was gone and then he argued with Gert about how he told her not to let him out, which was all on-the-nose, and we already knew those things. So then Bob took out all of the exposition and the scene is even more powerful because it is now completely visual, not verbal. Francis simply walks up to the stoop and when he sees the horrified look on his wife, he knows what has happened. He runs through the house screaming for Peter. We watch him run upstairs, downstairs, into the kitchen and living room. He rips a crucifix off the wall and hurls it across the room as he cries out in anguish. Do I even need to explain that by watching him throw the crucifix, we learn everything we need to know about his anger toward God? THAT is far superior to him verbalizing those feelings somewhere else. Another great, 4-star sequence.

Let's talk about setups and payoffs.

Not only do you setup and payoff plot points in a story, but I think you have to sometimes consider setting up and paying off particular screenwriting techniques. In Act Three, Bob cut back and forth between Max in the crematorium death room and Francis in the camp. It was very good but a little out of place, technique-wise, because no where else did Bob cut back and forth between two storylines taking place at the same time. Until you got to the end, everything always happened in sequential order. In this new draft, that technique is set up throughout pages 20-30.

Instead of watching, as we did before, (in sequential order) Francis in Warsaw and then another sequence later with Max in the Niepokalanow Friary during New Year's Eve, Bob now cuts back and forth between these two sequences, which are now taking place at the same time during New Year's. And we keep watching these two storylines unfold until both Francis and Father Max wind up in the same prison cell together. That is master craftsmanship, and yet another great, 4-star sequence. Not only that, there are a number of changes within Francis’ sequence that are praiseworthy. Here Francis helps SAVE the boy from the soldiers, which is extremely powerful, because you get the impression that it might be how he wanted to save his own son. Francis participates in the execution of the soldiers, which is now more clearly motivated because of his anger about his son. We also see HOW Francis winds up in jail, which did not exist before.

Let's talk about Max himself.

I was so very happy to see a new scene with Father Max and Rabbi Davidowitz in the Mess Hall, which takes place right before the Rabbi's death. This entire storyline between Max and the Rabbi finally comes full circle with Max's tearful confession and apology to the Rabbi. This script needed this scene more than anything else. I was happy to see it and then I was in tears because it's so heartbreaking. Yet, it brings a much-needed layer of humanity to Max that we didn't really see before. It's not just the fact that the camp had finally broken him, but this scene shows that Max is a man who knows he is human, that he is capable of making mistakes and second-guesses himself, who is not blind about his own influences, and who cared very deeply about the Jews, particularly the Rabbi, despite the impression they may have gotten from his writings. The last thing he ever wanted to see were his friends in this tragic condition. Max sobs and sobs, and he says, "It's my fault you're here, your family's here... Brother Ludwick begged me not to cause trouble. If I would have just shut down the paper. You'd be safe, we'd all be safe..." The Rabbi says, "Max, listen to me..." but Max continues, "I wanted to die... I condemned all of you as well..."

And the final words the Rabbi gives him reflects as much about how great the Jews can be as Max reflects Catholics. In the end, it's all about love and forgiveness, is it not?

I should probably stop here.

There was more I wanted to talk about. In closing, let me say this. The ending is still just as great and powerful as it ever was. However, Bob changed the person who kills Max in the Crematorium. Why he made that change and how that fit into that person’s own storyline, I will leave for you to discover. It was the right choice.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Kubrick's "Napoleon" - Part III

We learn from the narrator about the death of Robespierre, which had ended a “reign of terror and sent Paris headlong into a lavish whirl of pleasure seeking and sensuality, as if it were necessary to shake off the nightmare and make up for lost time.”

Napoleon enters Paul Barras’ “Salon,” a lush, elegant room where the elite of the new society are sitting around tables playing cards. Women walk around and “display their breasts completely uncovered, in the fashion of the day.”

He sees Josephine (pictured above).

A bartender whom Kubrick describes as a “friendly creep” explains how most of these people made their money through crooked war contracts and hints at the depths of their hedonism.

Everyone heads into Barras’ Music Room. There is a small stage.

“It begins to look like a musical evening until the entrance onto the stage of three very attractive girls, dressed in heavy winter costumes. The three ‘actresses’ begin to talk about being snowbound in a desolate cabin, when their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of three young desperados.”

The young men proceed to strip the girls of their clothes and have intercourse with them.

“Napoleon, still the provincial, can scarcely believe his eyes.”

“Josephine, seated next to Barras, watches the proceedings, an imperturbable study of elegance and charm. Barras takes her hand and smiles at her. She whispers something to him and he nods, gravely.” They leave.

What was the point of the scene in the Music Room?

I don't believe it was shock for the sake of shock. I’d say the point here is yet another broad stroke about how this particular portion of French history and all of its carnal decadence influenced Napoleon. The point of that scene is “Napoleon, still the provincial, can scarcely believe his eyes.”

Napoleon is made Commander of the Army of Italy. He prepares for his Italian campaign. Through a series of rather contrived circumstances, he meets Josephine. They immediately make love to each other in “a candle-lit oval bedroom that is completely encircled with floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels.”

What follows is one of my favorite sequences.

I just love the technique Stanley uses here.

They marry. Napoleon goes off and prepares for his Italian campaign. While he’s at camp, he writes a number of love letters to Josephine, which we hear in voice over. At this stage of his life, Napoleon is on the brink of worldwide fame, already proving himself to be a great symbol of strength, and yet, as he writes these letters, we see a completely different side of the man who just shot Monsieur Varlac in a town square. This is the emotionally vulnerable Napoleon Bonaparte.

He just pours his heart out onto these letters: “Sweet and incomparable Josephine, what is this bizarre effect you have upon my heart?” “By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my existence? It is a kind of death, my darling, since there is no survival for me except in you.”

And while we hear Napoleon pour his heart out, we watch Josephine have an affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles.

And as we move through this sequence, we slowly hear a shift in the tone of Napoleon’s words. His heart, which was so much in love at the beginning of this sequence, becomes troubled, aching, and wounded.

There’s a catch. This sequence was poorly organized in the script, because Stanley wrote out all of Napoleon’s letters first and THEN he wrote out the scenes in which we would hear the voice overs. Unless you’re paying attention, you may not realize just how powerful those scenes would actually be. So I’ve taken the liberty of rearranging this sequence and placing the voice overs into the scenes so that we might get a better idea of how it would've actually looked and sounded.


The candlelit, oval bedroom is completely encircled with floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels, which multiply the erotic images of Napoleon and Josephine, making love.

My dearest Josephine -- I awaken
full of you. Between your portrait
and the memory of our intoxicating
night, my senses have had no
respite. Sweet and incomparable
Josephine, what is this bizarre
effect you have upon my heart? What
if you were to by angry? What if I
were to see you sad or troubled?
Then my soul would be shattered by
distress. Then your lover could
find no peace, no rest. But I find
none, either, when I succumb to the
profound emotion that overwhelms me,
when I draw up from your lips, from
your heart, a flame that consumes
me. You will be leaving the city at
noon. But I shall see you in three
hours. Until then, mio dolce amor,
I send you a thousand kisses -- but
send me none in return, for they set
my blood on fire.


The marriage of Napoleon and Josephine -- a small private civil ceremony in the Mayor's officer. The only guests are Barras, Eugene, Hortense, Marmont and Junot.

My dear Theresa -- I am being urged
to remarry. You have met General
Bonaparte at my house. Well, then,
it is he who wishes to serve as
father to my children. Do I love
him? You are going to ask me.
Well, no. Do I, then, find him
unattractive? Again, no -- but
worse still, I find myself in a
state of indifference, of


The Bonaparte kitchen in Marseilles. Letizia is cutting vegetables with a knife, the sound of which allows a disapproving punctuation of her silences. The tap-tap-tapping of the knife dicing a carrot.

Mama, I'm sorry that I didn't write
to you about this, but I thought
that it would be much better to tell
you myself.

Tap, tap, tap.

Mama, I know that when you meet her,
you will love her as much as I do.

Tap, tap, tap.


Napoleon, seated at a table in his HQ tent late at night writing a letter by candlelight.

My dearest Josephine, every moment
increases the distance between us,
and with every moment that passes I
feel myself less able to endure the
separation. You are the eternal
object of my thoughts, and my
imagination exhausts itself
wondering what you are doing.


It is a bright, sunny morning in Josephine's bedroom at Rue de Chanterine. There is a letter from Napoleon leaning against the teapot on her breakfast tray. She picks up the envelope, sees who it is from, puts it down, pours her tea, adds milk and sugar, stirs it carefully, sighs, looks outside at the tall trees rustling in the breeze, then idly picks up the letter and opens it.

By what magic have you captivated
all my faculties, concentrated in
yourself all my existence? It is a
kind of death, my darling, since
there is no survival for me except
in you.
* * *
I ask of you neither eternal love
nor fidelity, but only truth, utter
honesty. The day upon which you
should say "I love you less," would
be the last day of my love -- or the
last day of my life. And if I should
not die of sorrow, then, my heart,
maimed for life, would never again
trust itself to respond to any
sentiments of tenderness or rapture.


A close shot of Napoleon's hand, writing on his official stationary which has printed, under a large illustration symbolizing liberty and equality, "Headquarters of the Commander in Chief, Army of Italy."

You let many days go without writing
to me. What, then, are you doing?


General Le Clerc presents his aide, Captain Hippolyte Charles. [Note: probably dual dialogue here.]

When you write, dearest, assure me
that you realize that I love you
with a love that is beyond the
limits of imagination. That you,
you alone, and all of you, as I see
you, as you are -- only you can
please me, absorb the faculties of
my soul; that there is no corner of
my heart into which you do not see,
no thought of mine which is not
subordinate to you. That my arms,
my strength, my mind are all yours.
That my soul lives in your body.
That the world is beautiful only
because you inhabit it.

I should like you to meet my aidede-
camp, Captain Hippolyte Charles
-- Madame Bonaparte.

I am delighted to meet you, Madame

Thank you, Captain. Won't you both
please sit down?

Love at first sight.

Thank you very much, Madame
Bonaparte. I have come at the
instruction of General Bonaparte to
bring this letter from his mother in


Napoleon lying awake in the early hours of the morning, in his camp bed.

No letters from you -- only once
every four days do I receive one,
whereas if you loved me you would
write me twice a day. Absence
relieves minor attachments but it
intensifies love. A kiss upon your
mouth, upon your heart, everywhere.
There is no one else, no one but me,
is there?


Moonlight. Josephine and Charles walk slowly in the garden. They stop. She is still. He touches his lips to her shoulders and neck. She slowly turns, looks into his eyes and kisses him, long and languorously.

Your letter is brief, sad and
written in a trembling hand. What
is wrong with you, my darling?
* * *
My misfortune is to have known you
so little; yours, to have judged me
by the men you have known, who
surrounded you.
* * *
You have inspired in me a limitless
passion, and an intoxication that is
degrading. Josephine, you have made
me wretched. But I have never
believed in happiness. Is life
really worth making such a fuss?


Napoleon standing at a camp fire in the rain, staring vacantly into the flames.

Four hours ago, there came that
scrap of a letter to break the news
that you are not coming, that you
are ill, that there are three
doctors in attendance, that you
cannot write yourself. My life is
now a perpetual nightmare. A fatal
premonition stops me from breathing.
I am ill of your illness, burning
with your fever.


Josephine and Charles making love in her mirrored bedroom at the Rue de Chanterine. Maximum erotica.

In a month I have received only two
notes of three lines each. Good
God, tell me how you know so well
how to inspire love in other's
hearts, without feeling it in your
own? Make mock of me, stay on in
Paris, take lovers, let all the
world know it, never write to me --
and then? And then, I shall love
you ten times more than I did
* * *
But don't go on telling me that you
are ill; don't go on trying to
justify your behavior. You are
* * *
Your letters are as cold as
friendship. What is left for you to
do to make me more wretched? Stop
loving me? That's already done.
Hate me? Perhaps I should hope for
that. Hatred, at least, is not
humiliating. But, oh, indifference
-- the pulse of marble, the vacant
glance, the distracted air.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Kubrick's "Napoleon" - Part II

The script for Kubrick’s Napoleon originally turned up in 1994 in a salt mine near Hutchinson, Kansas, where film studios stored their archives.

In early 2000, copies traded hands on eBay for hundreds of dollars until the script made its illegal Internet debut. The Kubrick estate had the script removed but not before tens of thousands of fans downloaded it. Of course, now it’s freely available here and many reviews have posted over the years. You cannot help but feel a huge sense of gratitude for having the opportunity, as a screenwriter, to study something as unique as this, the result of a genius’s obsession to make a movie about another genius.

His script spans Napoleon’s entire life from his birth to his death. He starts with a few pages on his childhood, moves on to his quick rise to military power, and then to become head of an empire that ruled over much of Europe.

Then we witness his stunning, heart-wrenching downfall. In Act Three, he mounts his final comeback, regains power, which lasts only a few months, as the entire world moves against him and crushes him.

In order to accomplish an ambitious story like this within 150 pages, a writer is left with no alternative but to make broad strokes of characterizations and highlight the important segments of his life and fill in the gaps with narration, which is exactly what Stanley did. On paper, that sounds like a really boring documentary-style movie, but I think it would’ve worked with Stanley at the helm, because of the

  1. lush Barry Lyndon-esque visuals

  2. epic recreations of Napoleon’s battles

  3. unflinching look at his sex life, highly unusual even in today’s biopics.

Stanley opens with a 4-year-old Napoleon cradling a “well worn teddy bear.” As many of you know, the opening shot of a movie sets up what that movie is about as well as the expectation of what is to come, and in good movies, the first shot and the last are usually connected in some way. Kubrick opens with a teddy bear and he closes with that teddy bear, which is in a box with other toys in his mother’s bedroom.

What’s the significance of the teddy bear?

Why not a lion or a tiger? And why a “well worn” teddy bear? Perhaps it’s a statement about his personality? Or perhaps the bear is a symbolic gesture of his desire later in life to take possession of Russia, a.k.a the “Russian Bear,” which would lead to his downfall.

We’re then given a sequence of about 3 ½ pages where Kubrick establishes Napoleon as the outcast genius, the little boy who thought someone filled his pitcher with glass, which was, in reality, water turned to ice. He is laughed at. He is put down by his dormitory roommates, two bullies - Dufour and Bremond. Throughout this 3 ½ page sequence Dufour and Bremond repeatedly antagonize Napoleon. At the end, he fights them both.

Why two bullies?

I think this may be another symbolic gesture foreshadowing Napoleon’s inevitable downfall, in particular his final battles against Wellington and Blucher, who led the world’s armies against him and defeated him.

But here, “the boys go down in a tangle of bread, jam, and milk.”

Cut ahead to military school, some narration about Napoleon’s growing depth of knowledge, and then we move on to his first sexual encounter, a scene with a “young street-walker” (uncannily similar to a scene in Eyes Wide Shut). They meet on a street in Lyon. They talk about the cold winter weather. It’s almost humorous witnessing Napoleon’s naïveté about the prostitute. “You must be chilled to the bone, standing out of doors like this.” She is, she tells him. They talk. She asks questions. He tells her he’s on leave and that he has a room at the Hotel de Perrin.

“Is it a nice warm room, sir?”

“Well, it must be a good deal warmer than it is here on the street.”

She suggests they go up to his room. It “clicks” in him what she’s after. He says he has very little money. She asks him if he has 3 francs. Cut to Napoleon’s hotel room, lit by one candle. Napoleon sits, fully clothed, watching the girl undress and dive into bed. He wants to talk to her. She suggests that he gets into bed with her. He blows out the candle.

Over the next 13 pages, ending on page 24, Kubrick dives into Napoleon’s very quick ascension to Commander of the Army of Italy.

Napoleon’s rise in power is illustrated with 3 specific sequences:

  1. Ending a small revolution of peasants,

  2. Suggesting to the very powerful Paul Barras, “Citizen Deputy,” the winning strategy to recapturing Toulon, an important French naval port that had fallen into the hands of a Royalist insurrection, and

  3. Napoleon, now a General, saves Barras’ ass again by defeating a huge mob of angry civilians who attack the Convention.
Now, 2 and 3 are very straightforward pieces of storytelling. All is lost. Outlook is grim. Napoleon proves his genius and saves the day.

But I’d like to focus on the first sequence, the revolution with the peasants. It lasts 3 pages. This is Napoleon’s first real test. Here, you get a taste of what Kubrick meant with respect to questions about “the responsibilities and abuses of power.” You also see Napoleon’s nature – an aggressive, arrogant, impatient, abuser of power.

The scene takes place in a town square where 300 peasants and town workers have crowded around a cart on top of which stands Monsieur George Varlac, a revolutionary leader, who has been working the crowd into a frenzy.

Napoleon enters on his horse. He leads 25 French troops. He addresses the speaker and says he is looking for Monsieur George Varlac. Varlac admits he is that man.

Napoleon informs him he has a warrant for his arrest for “the murder of Monsieur de Bouchy and his son and the burning of his chateau.”

Varlac tells him to go home.

“Monsieur Varlac, do not pretend to speak for these good people whom you have misled and inflamed with violent speech. Now, I order you down from the cart.”

“I do not recognize the authority of the King or any of his lackeys.”

The crowd laughs.

Varlac continues. “I suggest that you leave with your men while you can.”

(Question - what is the responsible way to handle this situation? I’d say Napoleon should order his 25 troops to grab Varlac and take him away.)

Napoleon pulls out his pistol.

“Monsieur Varlac, I will count slowly to five, and if you have not begun to get down from the cart by then, I will carry out your execution, on the spot.”

He immediately begins counting.

“One... Two... Three...”

People move away from Varlac and the cart.

“Four... This is your last chance, Monsieur Varlac.”

Varlac makes an obscene gesture. The crowd laughs nervously.


“Napoleon rides up to the cart, carefully aims his revolver and shoots Varlac in the head. His entourage leaps to safety. A gasp of astonishment from the stunned crowd, who stand hypnotized.”