Saturday, July 28, 2007

Script Review – Billy Mernit’s “The Trouble With My Sister”

I believe this is a first for the screenwriting world – a review of a Billy Mernit screenplay! Yeah, baby!

The Trouble With My Sister, which was written by Billy from a story conceived by him and Bruce Perstein (the attached producers right now are
Jim Pasternak and Richard Marshall) is a solid, fast-paced, visually-oriented, 109-page, 3-act, hard-liquor shot of black comedy horror. The script has been around for a little while. Billy described it as “the little indie that will not die… [the script] keeps getting periodically optioned, and a pair of indie prods are currently trying to get it setup as an under $3K job for me to direct no less (I'll believe that when I see it) but anyway -- I've always had affection for this twisted little pic…”

(Pssst… Billy Mernit uses
Secondary Headings. Pass it on.)

In the story, we follow Terry and his sister, Madeline, who live in a creaking old domicile on Elm Street in a picturesque little town called Briar Hollow. Terry, 17, goes to high school. Madeline, 18, remains holed up in the house... day and night.

(Pssst… Billy Mernit keeps his action paragraphs down to
4 lines or fewer. Pass it on.)

In school, Terry falls in love with Judith. At home, Madeline decorates a dollhouse. In school, Terry has a typical teenage conflict with this territorial, testosterone-filled bully. At home, Madeline has this little habit of killing men who just happen to visit the house. Terry and Judith slowly head toward the inevitable consummation of their love. Madeline ensnares men with a scent of raw sex like bugs to a Venus Flytrap. A thief, by the name of Nathan, breaks into the house. Madeline discovers him and, umm, keeps him locked in the basement. He eventually escapes and... kills Judith’s father. Oooo...

(Pssst… Billy Mernit is all about
cinematic storytelling. He writes the shots. Pass it on.)


Not even 5 pages into this script, I already knew exactly what this review would be about. Listen closely: I’m not sure where the idea originated or how it became so prevalent in the thinking of so many newbies like those on
TriggerStreet and Zoetrope, but countless non-produced screenwriters believe (or have been told) that you cannot “write the shots” or “direct the director” in the action lines and that all you can do is setup the scene with a brief description and just write dialogue. That is total bunk.

If you study the great screenwriters and elite closers of modern cinema like Robert Towne or Shane Black or Lawrence Kasdan -- they WRITE THE SHOTS. They carefully guide the camera through the action lines without using camera angles. And let it be said that this is not offensive to directors – it is, in fact, INSPIRATIONAL when you read something that you can actually visualize as a real film. Writers are filmmakers, too, and we have to write our scripts like filmmakers.

And so, for me, Billy’s action lines were the highlight of his script. What elevates his screenplay above so many other black comedy specs I’ve encountered is the simple fact that his action lines exemplify the principle of visual storytelling and writing the shots.

Consider Billy’s opening sequence:



A DARK BEDROOM

Dimly visible, a bureau and a bed on thick carpet and… strange: the bed’s tilted at an unnatural angle; there’s something odd, slightly off about the dimensions of everything…

Sound of blinds being pulled up and the room’s suddenly flooded with morning sunlight, as:

A GIANT HAND with polished pink nails reaches into the room and pulls out the bed, holding it up for inspection. The front leg’s broken. The toy bed is whisked away for repair and now we see:

THE DOLL HOUSE

Its cutaway front reveals a beautifully appointed toy home in progress: miniature Americana with a purity that would be hard to find in the real world. Although, actually…

OUTSIDE:

A RED ROSE BUSH gleams under postcard-blue skies.

SOMEONE’S MORNING PAPER hits their driveway, the shadow of a bicycling newsboy passing by.

A SPRINKLER swooshes lazily back and forth, silver water splashing over a deep green lawn.


Notice how he guides the camera - first inside the dollhouse, then outside the dollhouse, then outside the real house, and then he moves the camera from the rose bushes over to a newspaper landing on a driveway and then around to a sprinkler. Of course, this sequence continues beyond what I shared with you here. He moves through the entire neighborhood to show us other locations and characters, but then he comes right back to the house where we started to meet Madeline in all of her sensual, twisted, murdering glory. Second, did you also notice how Billy was making a visual statement about façades by comparing the façade of the picturesque dollhouse with the façade of the picturesque neighborhood?

Consider this other moment, a very tense one, in which Nathan, the thief (who is being chased by cops) wiggles into the basement of Terry and Madeline’s happy domicile:



THE BASEMENT FLOOR – is dimly visible below, and something – a table? that he could conceivably climb down to.

Nathan holds his breath as he tries the window. Miracle of miracles, it squeaks open at his touch, unlocked.

Nathan wriggles through the window. Suspended half in and half out, he grabs his pillowcase booty and throws it to the floor behind him.

INSIDE THE BASEMENT

Nathan's feet swing wildly for a foothold, finding the table top at last. Except it's a thin piece of plywood atop two sawhorses ‑ and Nathan goes crashing right through it.

IN MADELINE'S ROOM UPSTAIRS

Madeline's hands are just placing a completed miniature couch matching the flower‑covered chair onto her card table as the muffled crash sounds from below.

IN THE BASEMENT

Nathan's face contorts in a silent scream of pain. He's crumpled in the corner, holding both hands around his ankle. Slowly, agonizingly, he straightens out the leg, then wincing all the way, tries to get up.

NATHAN
Sweet ‑ Je‑sus ‑ H ‑

Nathan puts weight on the foot. Big mistake.

NATHAN
(strangled hiss)
Christ!

With a moan he sinks back, clutching his ankle, as the sound of footsteps comes from directly above him. Nathan freezes. He follows the steps across the ceiling with a look of dread.

Suddenly remembering, he reaches inside his jacket, curses. In the dim light he can just barely make out:

HIS GUN ‑ glimmering faintly way across the floor, beyond a bulbous ancient boiler, just as

THE DOOR AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS ‑ suddenly creaks open, filled by a dim silhouette.

Nathan holds his breath, cringing in the shadowy corner.

MADELINE'S HAND ‑ feels along the wall for the light switch.

Nathan can't look. He shuts his eyes. There's a loud click followed by silence. He opens his eyes.

Madeline's hand leaves the switch. The lightbulb is out.

Nathan watches her shadowy silhouette hesitate... withdraw. The door creaks shut.

Nathan's head falls back against the wall. He exhales a shaky breath, looks forlornly from the distant gun to his wounded ankle. His black shirt and pants are now a lint, leaf and grime‑dusted grey. He sighs.

NATHAN
Fabulous.


Notice how he starts with hints of long and medium shots of Nathan, and when the action intensifies, Billy describes close-ups of Madeline’s hand and Nathan’s eyes. And when it’s over, he reverts back to medium and long shots.

He does the same thing in this next example. He starts with descriptions of medium shots but when these two get intimate, he describes close-ups. We’re still in the basement, but this scene is shortly after Madeline discovered Nathan:



Nathan steels himself as the footsteps approach again...

The door creaks open. Madeline comes down the stairs, flashlight in one hand, a paper bag clutched in the other. She's smiling. Nathan can hardly believe his good fortune.

NATHAN
What ‑ they're not...? You...
What did you tell them?

Madeline kneels down by Nathan.

MADELINE
Nothing.

NATHAN
(ecstatic)
You're kidding. That's ‑ Wow.
I don't know how to thank you,
I mean all I can say...

Madeline rests her hand on his other ankle, the good one. She gives it a playful, tender caress, gently squeezes the calf. Nathan looks down at her hand, then at her.

NATHAN
That's not... It's the other one.

Madeline gives him a dreamy little smile.

MADELINE
Am I your baby?

Nathan stares at her. Then suddenly, as the whole situation sinks in, he can't help himself - relief, despair, the absurdity of it all ‑ Nathan starts to laugh.

Madeline draws back, her eyes fierce as she frowns at Nathan.

NATHAN
I'm sorry, it's just...
(a last chortle)
But... Are you my baby?
(MADELINE glares)
I think you're my angel of mercy
is what you are, and sweetheart...
(shaking his head)
I am so beholden to you, really, I...

She puts a hand on his bad ankle. Squeezes. He yelps.

NATHAN
Careful!

Madeline smiles. Terry's muffled voice comes from upstairs:

TERRY (O.S.)
Madeline!

Madeline and Nathan both turn to the ceiling. Nathan, freaked:

NATHAN
Who's that?

Madeline gazes at the ceiling, thinking. She turns slowly back to Nathan, chewing her lower lip - gets an idea.

MADELINE
My boyfriend.

Nathan stares at her. She leans forward. With satisfaction:

MADELINE
He's a cop.

TERRY (O.S.)
Maddy, where are you?

Nathan's mouth hangs open, eyes wide.

MADELINE
But I'm going to take care of you.
Okay?

Nathan can only nod weakly. In a croak:

NATHAN
Okay.

TERRY (O.S.)
Madeline?

Madeline pulls a handful of thick pink yarn out of her paper bag. Before Nathan even comprehends what's happening, she's binding his hands behind his back.

NATHAN
What the ‑

Madeline clamps a hand over his mouth. Annoyed, whispering:

MADELINE
Quiet. Or I'll tell.

TERRY (O.S.)
Maddy?

Nathan's eyes dart frantically to the ceiling as Madeline removes her hand from his mouth. She yanks his hands behind him. She's quick and effective with her yarn.

MADELINE
There.

Nathan's hands are now tied behind him. Madeline reaches back into her bag, pulls out a pint bottle of brandy, uncaps it.

MADELINE
Now open...

She opens her palm to show him the capsules.

NATHAN
What -

MADELINE
For the pain.

She feeds him the capsules. Nathan gulps as she lifts the bottle to his lips. He drinks, coughs, eyes tearing.

MADELINE
Sssh...

Nathan's lips gleam, wet with liquor. Madeline leans over him and kisses him full on the mouth. It's deep, long, fierce. Then she rises abruptly and hurries up the stairs. Nathan can only stare dazedly after her. Is this really happening?



Following our study on exposition, I’m going to write at length about this topic of “writing the shots” and “directing the director.”

Okay, Billy, I have only one minor suggestion for you:

The lesbian cop, Nicole, flirting with Madeline felt like a setup without a payoff. The fact that Nicole was so willing to flirt with Madeline seemed to be an indication that, despite what we saw in the opening scene with her kissing her beautiful live-in lover, all was not well in that relationship. So why not let Madeline explore a relationship with Nicole? How much fun would that be? Why not make Nicole Madeline’s first true love, which would add to Terry’s overall stress? And this could also destroy Nicole’s relationship with her significant other. Thus, in the Third Act, Nicole and Marvin enter the house. Nicole sees Terry cradling Madeline’s body. She is stunned and drops to her knees, which would add another layer of tragedy to the ending. This relationship could also bring an interesting change in motivation in Madeline. First, she was killing to take out her anger about her father, but then she kills to cover up her sins because she’s now fighting for love, which neither she nor Terry can obtain because of their past sins. And I wonder if we should see Terry get arrested and dragged away from Judith. And then cut to their reunion after he’s released from prison.

Good job, Billy.

17 comments:

GimmeABreak said...

Thank you for providing those example snippets. I've always struggled with the punctuation when cutting away from a description to a new slug or secondary heading in the middle of a sentence. Colons! Yeah!

Mim said...

Colons are our friends.

Thanks so much, MM. I'm sending this to my partner. We both try to set up shots in our action lines to inspire the director, but it never hurts to have a refresher course.

crossword said...

Thanks MM and also to BM for providing a sneak peek! The thing I love about this is the insight... the action lines don't (and likely won't) ever get the mad props they deserve because they're only seen by readers. But this here reader is grateful. :)

Joshua James said...

Great stuff, especially the secondary headings, but I have to add this . . .

I cannot TELL you HOW much SHIT I've gotten whenever I write out shots.

Can't tell ya . . . granted, I don't think I've been exposed to as many readers as some of y'all, but I have to say I've heard it many, many times.

If I recall, there were a few pro readers (I think it was on Scott's blog, not him but some commenting) who said they objected to WE SEE in action direction lines . . . and that it smacked of bad writing.

And when I pointed out that pro's do it, I was told that PROS can do it cause they've proven themselves, spec monkey's can't.

Which smacks of bull to me, but it's what I've read and been told.

Now if it's just a personal preference, that's cool . . . there are things I am none too fond of myself . . .

However I have to say I've heard (and I cannot comment more than that) that this kinda of "mistake" and other, simple things, will cause a reader rating a script to knock it down a notch.

I don't know if it's because there is no one way of evaluating a script, or what . . . but it is frustrating . . . I think sometimes a writing HAS to write the shot, they HAVE TO . . . and being told it's forbidden is frustrating . . .

I dunno . . . have I just not run into the right readers, or what?

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, guys!

Joshua - If I remember correctly, I believe this is the only time in Billy's spec where he wrote "we see." A minor mistake that yes, could've been avoided, and once isn't the end of the world, but screenwriters should never do that. One can always find ways of avoiding it. But the bigger point here was just the way he approached the descriptions in the actions, which quietly guided the minds eye AND the camera. It's a movie on paper, which is exactly what a screenplay should be. Hope that helps.

-MM

mernitman said...

First of all, a huge thank-you to MM for lavishing such time and such insightful musings on my work! Getting this kind of "careful read" is a tonic in the face of the usual indifference one encounters from industry folk when it comes to matters of craft.

But now I need to apologize to Joshua, because (AURGH!) you're right: I'm personally not fond of the "we see" device and I strenuously try to avoid it... so it pains me to realize I slipped up this way -- on my very first page, no less. Please forgive me (as I'm not apt to forgive myself, and will compulsively revise that passage, now that you've drawn my attention to it).

Like any craft convenience, the problem with "we see" is that it too easily becomes a crutch, and the pros who use it tend to overuse it; and while it goes without saying, I'll duly note that really, since technically "we see" everything that's on the page, the only legitimate excuse for a "we see" is if you're telling us about something a character in the movie DOESN'T see, but we (the audience) DO; however, even in this case, there are other ways to write it.

Meanwhile, I'm glad you're all getting something out of the excerpts and MM's commentary, and yes: let's hear it for colons!

And let's hear it for MM, who's not only providing a very neat service here, but has some interesting notions about further development on my draft, which I will duly consider...

Joshua James said...

Some GREAT scripts begin with WE SEE, just off the top of my head, AMERICAN BEAUTY, the Cohen's first film . . . there are many films that use WE SEE quite fine . . .

Great, I get that some folks don't like it, but I don't believe it's a sign that a screenplay is not well written . . . it's simply a choice made . . .

Joshua James said...

I meant to say, no need to apologize to me for WE SEE, I don't think there's anything wrong with it, I truly don't, and I think niggling over details like this, in all scripts, tends to distract from the story and the writing . . .

That's my opinion, anyway . . .

Nena said...

Wow. I may never touch a mouse again. Don't suppose there's any way to read the entire screenplay?

Mickey Lee said...

MM

I still stand by everything I said in my comments on "The Inside Man" -- in that I still believe it is the director who is the ultimate determinant in HOW the story is going to be told, with the editor coming in second place. In fact, some writers don't realize that all those fancy flashbacks they are so enamored didn't come about until the director and editor sat down in a dingy room together.

And I think many frustrated writers will attest to this, which is why many want to become directors themselves.

Now, as I writer, I am all for "calling the shots" and I try to do this by describing things in the order I visualize them occurring or being seen. For instance, I'll put different visual cues in different paragraphs, and as you know, I'm a big fan of secondary headings.

But I have no need for "We see", "we hear", "close up" "zoom", "smash cut" and in fact I find it more challenging to write without all the crutches. And I'm glad to see that, other than the one instance, Billy doesn't use them either.

Mystery Man said...

Nena - Probably not.

Mickey - A couple of things: the director most certainly calls the shots, and I'm not making the point that writers dictate to anyone what the shots will be. Nor am I saying that this means that writers have to write "we see," "we hear," or any of that other stuff. This is about WHAT you write in the action lines and how you write it. I'm talking about implied camera directions and us guiding the camera in the action lines through the art of visual storytelling. That's an essential aspect. Notice in that second example, that tense moment when Madeline almost discovered Nathan in the basement, the way Billy guided WHAT we saw - the medium shots of him on the ground and her walking down the steps and then to heighten the tension, the implied closeups of her hand working the light and Nathan's eyes. There's nothing wrong with that approach. In fact, it's more exciting to read than general descrictions. Of course, a director may choose to do something different, which is great, and in fact, when he/she gets on the set, the production team may come up with something more interesting. Great! But the writer has to BEGIN the process of ideas in the script. You have to inspire people with the visual writing and implied camera directions in the action lines.

-MM

Mickey Lee said...

I'm getting the feeling that we basically agree.....

Mystery Man said...

Whew!

Hehehe...

This is a great topic. I can't wait to dive into it. I've been talking to a number of folks about this including a good pro writer, a screenwriting professor, and a pro reader. Believe me, I wouldn't steer you guys in the wrong direction. This'll be really great fun.

-MM

Joshua James said...

Can't wait to hear it, dude . . . let 'er rip, I'm dying to know the real scoop.

bob said...

I love this topic. And best of luck to you billy on getting this made. (cuz then I can snag your script on Drew's script-o-rama, he he)

Joshua James said...

Directors aren't always the ultimate determinate of how a film is told . . . sometimes it's the producer, sometimes it's the star, and sometimes they just shoot the script as written and it turns out fine . . .

That's why any discussion stating the director is author of a film is silly, because which director, when?

And giving feedback on this section going here or there, like an editor sometimes does, is a function of dramaturgy, not authorship.

I've done that for some fellow writers, it never made me author, because I DIDN'T WRITE IT, I responded to a story they wrote and made suggestions for improving the structure and / or story-telling techniques. Sometimes I suggested new scenes, but I didn't write them.

And I am credited as dramaturg, but not author.

I mean, does anyone really believe that Chris Columbus is author of the the First Harry Potter movie, and he had more power than JK?

Sometimes directors have great influence over the story, sometimes they don't. It depends on the producers, and the writers, and the story, right?

Either way, if they didn't write it, if they only told it, then they're not the author.

Editors often have great influence on some novels, but they're not authors . . . they're editors.

The director is already director, why give them another title?

The director is the director of the story.
The editor is editor of the story.
The writer is the author of the story.

Why does a movie need an author?

It has a director, usually, it has an editor, usually, sometimes it has a writer . . . but without a story (of which the writer is usually author of) there is no movie.

Sorry, I had to say that . . .

Mystery Man said...

I have two big reactions to that. (Great comment, by the way.)

1 - There's a lot of weird stuff floating out there about what a screenwriter should/shouldn't do that I have frankly NEVER understood. And one has always been this notion that you can't "direct the director." How absurd is that? Of course, NO CAMERA ANGLES, and I completely agree. But we are expected to put the film on paper, are we not? We're supposed to write the visuals we see on the screen, right? What does that mean? It means you write the shots. But you don't use cheap crutches like "we see" and "we hear." We're professionals and the shots are implied. Of course, STORY is king but remember, this is a story that has to be rendered CINEMATICALLY and you really can't do that without writing the shots. People are always more inspired when they can visualize what's going on.

2 - Everything in this business is about relationships. If you write the shots, no one's going to take offense to it unless you're an arrogant prick and you walk into a room with, say, a director and a producer like your shit doesn't stink and you dictate how things are going to be in this film, and then, yeah, they're going to hate you. They're going to be offended by you do and write because it reflects your horrifying vanity. On the other hand, if you've written a script and you walk into that room and you defend your work by explaining what you were hoping to accomplish and you're open to a discussion about ideas and you're actually wonderful to talk to and it's not about YOUR vision as much as it is the beginning of the process of ideas, then no one's going to care about the fact you've written the shots. It's about the ideas you bring to the table. Everything falls back to relationships in the business, period.

-MM