Sunday, January 13, 2008

Script-to-Screen: There Will Be Blood



Not long ago, I read the screenplay for There Will Be Blood, which was great fun. (You can listen to part of the fabulous score for free at its website (click “score”), which was composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.) What’s available is a shooting script, not a spec, but for me, the camera directions were most welcome. It was interesting to observe all the ways that Paul Thomas Anderson was thinking visually and telling his story visually, and I’d frequently wonder how I would write those scenes myself. The first 6 ½ pages had not one line of dialogue, which was expanded into 15-20 wordless opening minutes in the film. There were complaints about the ending, but to me, it made more sense than the ending for No Country. It was inevitable and the story was clearly headed in that direction. There was also a wonderful visual motif throughout the script involving falling objects, a metaphor, I think, for its main character, Daniel Plainview.

Let it be said that Plainview has more
depth than any character in No Country for Old Men who were all defined by singular characteristics. What we have in Daniel, on the one hand, is a man who admittedly hates most people while on the other hand, he deeply craves companionship, which was illustrated not only by the scene with the loose woman but also by how quickly he opened himself up to a man who claimed to be his brother despite the lack of evidence. He says he’s a family man, but he’s not. He parades in front of the landowners a small boy, H.W., whom he took in after his partner died. That boy was just a prop to get sales. Yet, he loved H.W. very deeply. When H.W. lost his hearing in a derrick explosion, Plainview would’ve spent a fortune to get a teacher, build a school, and relocate the families of other hearing-impaired children into that dusty wasteland just for H.W. Yet, later, he abandons him for a time. He says he’s spiritual when he’s not and his behavior was quite often blasphemous. He tries to become spiritual, which – at least Eli Sunday’s version of spirituality (he’s a teen who pastors a local “healing church”) – does not help Daniel heal his wounds or change his ways. (Eli was an unsettling reflection of Daniel.) He behaves unjustly toward people. Yet, he’s courteous, and he has a strong sense of right and wrong, particularly when it came to the abuse toward Eli's sister, Mary Sunday. He’s insatiably greedy. Yet, he turns down a million dollar offer from Union Oil, which is more than any man would ever need in 1898. Perhaps he did it out of madness. Perhaps he didn’t like that subtle imposition of values about how Plainview should be living his life. Perhaps he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he stopped working. Perhaps the only satisfaction he got was outsmarting everyone else. Or perhaps it's all those things.


I could go on. In any case, I thought it might be cool if I shared a scene from the script and then we'd watch a clip from the finished film and talk about how the scene was improved. Let me set this up. Daniel and his boy, H.W., have gone snooping around a bit of land in search for evidence of oil. They meet the Sunday family who are the landowners and have a ranch on the land. They tell the Sundays they’re just hunting for quail. The family allows them to set up a tent on their ranch and invites them to dinner...



INT. SUNDAY RANCH/NIGHT – LATER

DANIEL and HW and ABEL SUNDAY sit close to the fire. Just back a bit, on stones, sits the rest of the FAMILY and ELI. Abel directs the girls to clear and wash their dishes – they collect the dishes, and then:

ABEL SUNDAY
Brother, may I ask you a personal question?

DANIEL
Yes.

ABEL SUNDAY
Are you saved?

DANIEL
…yes…

ABEL SUNDAY
And you’ve been washed in the blood?

DANIEL
Yes, brother. We’ve been washed.

ABEL SUNDAY
What is your church?

DANIEL
Our church is called the Church of the World.

ABEL SUNDAY
I don’t know that Church. I don’t know
what their message is –

DANIEL
Yes.

ABEL SUNDAY
Can you tell me about the message of the
Church of the World?

DANIEL
Well, Brother Abel, we are told in the Book
not to discuss our faith with strangers.
Even if they’re so nice and helpful.

ABEL SUNDAY
We’re told in our book, “The Lord
has called us to preach the Gospel
unto them.”

DANIEL
Yes, that’s right. “And the Gospel must
first be published among all nations.”

ABEL SUNDAY
That’s right!

DANIEL
But according to our faith, we believe
that we get to know a man through friendship –
and business – and we talk about faith later.

Eli speaks up;

ELI
May I ask a question?

DANIEL
Yes, Eli?

ELI
What does your Church teach about earthquakes?

DANIEL
About the earthquakes? Like the
earthquake you had up here?
(beat)
We are taught that it is God’s mighty power.

ABEL SUNDAY
My son is a healer and a vessel
for the Holy Spirit. He has a church…

ELI
Our earthquakes mean that the Holy
Spirit has grown weary of drunkenness and
lying in the world.
(beat)
Have you been doing any of these things?

H.W.
No, we haven’t.

DANIEL (to Eli)
No, son. We haven’t.

ELI
Thank you.

No one seems to know what to say next, so they stand and say good night and head to their house. Daniel, H.W. get inside their tent.

EXT. SUNDAY RANCH – DAWN

DANIEL and HW put out their morning fire, collect their HUNTING GEAR and head off -

EXT. HILLS NEARBY/CANYON – MORNING

CAMERA leads/follows them as they move… H.W. and DANIEL carrying their shotguns… while they HUNT QUAIL.

DANIEL fires first. We follow H.W. -- watch him SHOOT…


Here’s the finished scene:



Did you notice all of the extraneous details that were cut? Mrs. Sunday and the daughters were cut. They stripped this scene to its core meaning, what that scene was really about - Father & Son vs. Father & Son. (Revisions of scenes always start with that same question, “What is this scene about? Who is this scene really about?”) They also trimmed the dialogue from 25 lines down to 20. They cut the quotations from Scripture and lines from Daniel that explained in more detail his “Church of the World” and how they “talk about faith later.” This is wise, I think, because he’d be repeating himself. He already said, “we are told in the Book not to discuss our faith with strangers.” Hitting the highlights serves its purpose and extra details aren’t necessary.

The point here, of course, is the subtext of Paul and Eli’s intention to convert Daniel and H.W., and there is the subtext of Daniel refusing to join them while at the same time not insulting them either and making them believe he’s one of them so he can buy their land dirt cheap. I love the shift in values in this scene, too – the seemingly innocent (yet intentional) inquiries from the Sundays about Daniel's faith contrasted by the deceptions of Daniel, small lies at first, but as the inquiries get more detailed, it ends with a whopper of a lie, because he’s quite the drinker and liar. The voluntary response of H.W. was big because he had been instructed not to speak when Daniel’s dealing with landowners, but he helped make the final lie more believable.

Despite the fact that Anderson had written “INT. SUNDAY RANCH” the action lines lead me to believe that he really meant “EXT.” Exterior is, of course, the wiser decision because it makes visible all around the characters what’s really at stake – the land.

I also thought that the way they changed the transition from the campfire scene to the quail hunting was interesting. At the end of the campfire scene in the script, I get the impression that Anderson wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do, so he wrote about them saying their goodbyes (MOS) and then going into their tent followed by a scene in the morning packing up and going off to hunt quails. Yet, the final version gives this campfire scene a more traditional structure.

Many scenes that stand-alone (that are not part of a sequence) usually have framing devices in the form of actions. For example, a scene may start with a hand switching on lights and ends with that hand switching off the same lights. Or for example, there was that scene in Pulp Fiction where the camera was inside the trunk. The trunk door opens, Vincent and Jules talk about how they should’ve brought shotguns, about how many men could be inside, another comment about how they should’ve brought shotguns, and then they shut the trunk door. Or you could have a scene that opens with the threat of being shot by a gun and then the scene ends with the gun going off.

Well, here we had general descriptions in the script about setting and the cleaning up of dishes and ending with goodbyes and going to bed. They eventually enhanced the final version into a scene that’s book-ended with framing devices that are more character-driven and conflict-centered. The scene opens and closes with awkward silence. He gets rid of this extraneous morning scene at the camp where they pack up and also the time spent watching Daniel and H.W. walking before they shoot. He goes straight from whopper-lie to awkward silence to the shooting of the shotguns, which carries that feeling of tension into the next scene and makes you question Daniel Plainview's nature. And perhaps for a brief second, you wonder, “Is he killing someone?”

10 comments:

mspira said...

MM,

I continue to be impressed by the quality of everything you do as it relates to screenwriting. Great stuff.

terraling said...

Likewise.

I have a screenwriting folder in my feed reader and it has become an almost Pavlovian response, the little thrill when I see there is a new post from MM. Terrific stuff, and lots of it, too.

Mystery Man said...

You guys are very kind. Thank you.

Mim said...

I always try to look for things like that at the beginning and end of my scenes. The adage is "get in late, get out early," but sometimes it's hard knowing exactly the right moment to cut.

Mystery Man said...

Oh, sure, it can be. It's fascinating to me all the changes and fat that gets cut when you compare the script, even a shooting script, to the finished film. Cutting all the fat in the story is part of a natural filmmaking process, and the scene in this script, as it's written, doesn't have that much fat to it, but the extraneous details were cut nonetheless, a good lesson for all screenwriters, I think. If it's not essential, it should be gone.

I was actually going to comment on 3 scenes, but by the time I finished this one, I was already pushing 2,000 words.

-MM

Mim said...

I did notice it's a bit shorter than your usual fare.

bob said...

I loved the exchange about being washed in the blood. Daniel knew damn well what Abel was talking about but he could honestly say he had been washed in the blood. Just in an entirely different sense. That was some nice subtext!!

Great job MM! You the mystery man!

Matt said...

I think one of my favorite things about that script is how PTA will occasionally write a beat or a pause into a blank line of dialog. The example off the top of my head is something like.

ELI SUNDAY
Daniel, I'd like to talk to you.

DANIEL
...


None of us could certainly get away with putting that in a spec, but boy, it communicates a whole lot to the audience without a bad line of dialog or a clunky description.

Chris McClure said...

Hey MM, I remember this scene from the theater, but when I bought the DVD from Amazon, it was gone. Do you happen to know anything about this?

Mystery Man said...

Chris - Ya know, I don't believe it was ever in the film. When I saw it in the theater, I noticed the scene was gone! A good cut.

-MM