Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Look at "The Dark Knight" Script

I must say, this may very well be the best script of the year.

The Dark Knight is 167 pages, all of which flies by just as quickly as the 2 ½ hour film. Everything that’s great about the film is evident on the page. The Nolan brothers are entirely focused on their story. They’re relentless about the tension, suspense, and
inner conflicts, while also being thoroughly professional about the script’s presentation. There are no distractions on the page, like bad grammar or bad format. It’s so polished that once you’re sucked into the story, they keep you there without letting your mind get kicked offline with hiccups like poor grammar, which reminds you that you’re only reading a screenplay. When you read DK, you are in that world and you will stay there until the story’s over. Nolan reminds me of
Anthony Minghella in the sense that he’s a writer-director that refuses to inject into his scripts all kinds of technical details like camera angles and transitions.

On the page, it’s ALL about story.

So let me ask a question. How would you write the opening shot of the film? You may recall the glorious Imax-inspired view of the city and the slow zoom in on one building, then one window, which shatters. How do you write that without camera angles or "we see?" Here you go:

DAYLIGHT. Moving over the towers of downtown Gotham… Closing in on an office building… On a large window… which shatters to reveal -


A man in a CLOWN MASK holding a SMOKING SILENCED PISTOL ejects a shell casing. This is DOPEY. He turns to a second man, HAPPY, also in a clown mask, who steps forward with a CABLE LAUNCHER, aims at a lower roof across the street and FIRES a cable across. Dopey secures the line to an I-beam line – CLAMP on – sends a KIT BAG out then steps OUT the window…


…into space. The men SLIDE across the DIZZYING DROP… landing on the lower roof across the street.

I love it! “Moving over the towers of downtown Gotham… Closing in on an office building… On a large window… which shatters…” I’ll take that. The camera directions are implied. No technical details like “zoom in” and “angle on.” No “we see.” The ellipsis implies the time that goes by as we slowly move toward the window in one take. And the words inspire the imagination with a visual vocabulary that places the mind’s eye over the city of Gotham and flying toward a window. And you’re immediately sucked in because you know something not so nice is about to happen in the city of Gotham led by the Joker.

Consider this sequence, which was cut. This shows us how Bruce arrived in Hong Kong and would’ve followed Fox’s business meeting.


Two SMUGGLERS steal glances at Wayne, crouched at the rear in balaclava and flight suit. The COPILOT signals Wayne, who pulls on his oxygen mask and stands up. The rear of the plane OPENS. Wayne steps to the edge, then JUMPS.


Moving across the water toward Hong Kong harbor…

A tiny figure drops into frame, PLUMMETING towards the water – SPEEDING past the highest floors of skyscrapers, seconds from impact. Wayne PULLS the chute – DROPS into the water…


Wayne pulls himself out of the water, dragging up his pack.

This would’ve been followed by the scene where Wayne and Fox meet, and Fox shows him his special sonar cell phone.

Consider this Hong Kong rooftop scene, similar to the opening shot.


Moving toward the tallest building in the glittering skyline to find Wayne, crouched on the roof. The blades of his gauntlets CLICK into place. He dons the helmet-like cowl. His “cape” is in the form of a hard faceted PACK.

He stands – pulls two black boxes from his belt, CLICKS them together and UNFOLDS them into a RIFLE-LIKE DEVICE. Batman SCOPES a second, lower building. Adjust a setting and FIRES – four times…

Four small STICKY BOMBS SLAP onto the glass of the lower building. They have visible timers which are COUNTING DOWN.

Here’s where he leaps off the building.


Batman LAUNCHES into the glittering night, DROPPING from the tall tower… his pack BURSTS OPEN, becoming his BAT WINGS – he GLIDES down to the lower building, STREAKING around it, BANKING HARD to line up with a window in the rear…


Lau is talking on the phone, staring at a profit projection on a flat screen monitor. Suddenly, the room goes dark.


As Batman HURTLES towards the glass he collapses his wings, WRAPPING his cape around himself and CANNONBALLING THROUGH THE GLASS –


- ROLLING across the floor in a flurry of broken glass…

I look at these sequences and think about how wordy amateur scripts would’ve been to describe the same thing. I usually switch between pro and amateur scripts and the differences are stunning. Pro scripts can have problems with stories just like amateur scripts but they always move quicker. Amateurs too often think small and move too slow while describing incidentals, like room descriptions and the slightest gestures of characters while they have conversations. With the Nolan brothers, only the most essential details were incorporated into the script. They didn’t have time to dilly-dally with slight gestures or room descriptions. They kept it moving. And it’s totally engrossing. There’s something to be said about explaining EVERYTHING vs. explaining JUST ENOUGH to spark the imagination of the reader.

Above is early concept work of the Joker from a DK production book.

There weren’t too many changes from what was on the page to what was in the finished film. In the opening bank heist sequence, the script did not give us the big close-up of Joker’s face as we saw in the film. Instead, when the Joker said his line and took off his clown mask, the script called for a shot of the Bank Manager gasping at the site of his face, but we would only see reflections of different parts of the Joker's grotesque face on the glass debris on the floor lying all around the Bank Manager. Of course, the close-up feels right.

In the fancy restaurant scene, you may recall that Dent told Rachel it took him three weeks to get a reservation and he had to tell them he works for the government. Well, there are two lines that were cut in the exchange between Bruce, Rachel, and Dent, when Bruce crashed their date, which revealed the fact that Rachel knew Bruce was jealous of Dent and actively trying to sabotage their dates.

Wayne: Let’s put a couple of tables together.
Dent: I don’t know if they’ll let us –
Wayne: They should. I own the place.
Rachel: For how long? About three weeks?
Wayne: How’d you know?

The whole point of Dent saying it took him three weeks was to setup the joke that Wayne bought the restaurant three weeks ago just to give Dent a really hard time when it comes to dating Rachel.

I’d like to mention the scene where the Joker crashed the meeting of the mobsters with Lau in that hotel kitchen. In the finished film, the scene’s perfection. But the way the scene played out in the script was different and off. In the film, you had the meeting. You had Lau on a TV screen explaining how he moved all their money without telling them, which is intercut with shots of Gordon and the police trying to seize the funds only to find the money gone. Then, the Joker enters, changes the dynamics of the situation, and the scene ends with a shot of him backing out of the kitchen with all those explosives. In the script, we had the meeting, just like the film. We had Lau on a TV screen explaining how he moved the money, which is interrupted by the Joker who makes a different proposition about Batman. Then he leaves and says, “Let me know when you change your minds.” The mobsters turn back to Lau who finishes talking about the money, which is intercut with shots of Gordon and the police. That doesn’t work. It devalues the Joker’s influence. Plus, a scene has to be a shift in values of some kind. It starts on one value and ends on a different one. Once the Joker arrives, the dynamics of the whole situation changes, and the emphasis should be on him at the end of the scene.

One other change in this scene is that we would’ve learned the money the Joker acquired from the bank heist helped buy his new purple suit. Maroni told Lau that the Joker was just a “two-bit whack job” that “wears a cheap purple suit and make-up.” When the Joker enters later and does the pencil trick, he says to Maroni, “And by the way, the suit wasn’t cheap. You should know. You bought it.” Hehehe

There was also a change in the timing of when Dent reveals his face in the hospital room. In the script, Dent shows his face in the middle of the scene. In the finished film, they moved the dialogue around to let him reveal his face toward the end of the scene, which is better. Scenes are setups and payoffs. Save the payoffs for the end of the scene.

Do you know how much money was in that cargo hold – a billion dollars, which the script described as thirty feet high.

Three other impressions from the script:

1) The Joker wasn’t crazy for the sake of being crazy. They gave him a clear philosophical world view that defined who he was and why he did what he did, which found its origins in
The Killing Joke. Plus, the dialogue for the Joker is such a great reminder to new writers that you have to give actors a chance to really act through the dialogue.

2) The Nolans have a kind of magician’s approach to holding our attention in a story, like the pencil trick. What’s he talking about? How is he going to make the pencil disappear? Then, payoff. Or that scene in the Pool Hall where Gambol was told they have the Joker’s dead body. You know perfectly well the Joker’s not dead, but you keep watching because you have questions. Who’s in the bag? What’s the trick? How is the Joker going to act? What’s going to happen? Of course, you ask that with just about any evil scenario the Joker created, too, because you’re curious about how it’s going to play out. Creating questions in the minds of your readers makes them want to continue reading. It's the oldest trick in writing.

3) The tension and suspense are still the best elements of the film. Consider all the ways time was used to heighten the suspense. Every day Batman fails to reveal himself, people will die. Then, we’d know who was the target and we'd keep watching because we’re curious if or how the Joker will get to that target. “Depending on the time, he might be in one spot… or several.” He had “just minutes left” to save either Rachel or Dent. The way the Joker parceled out crucial information about his new game quickly heightened the tension in that interrogation scene with Batman. Then there was the commercial – tonight at five o’clock, we’ll reveal the identity of Batman. Stay tuned. Or the Joker’s phone call – “If Coleman Reese isn’t killed in sixty minutes, I’m going to blow up a hospital.” Or the ferry situation – If you don’t blow-up the other ferry by midnight, I’ll blow-up both of your ferries.

Thanks to Mr. Daniel Cova for sharing with me The Dark Knight (and a few other) scripts. While this spec’s not available yet, I have no doubt that the script for a film this popular will eventually hit the web.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Exposition of Rear Window

One can always point to the obvious strengths of a great film. What a sensational twist! Look at the way they handled exposition! Subtext! Visual storytelling! Look! Truffaut was right! She wasn’t simply showing the wedding ring to Stewart simply because it was the crucial piece of evidence needed to indict Thorwald! She finally PROVED herself to him! That was her PROPOSAL! Wasn't that brilliant?

Studying the strengths of great films always seemed to be a kind of elusive game to me because successful moments in one story does not necessarily equate into successful moments in a different story. You can't live off someone else's successes. You have to use your imagination and create great moments in the context of your own story. I also get kind of fearful about being too knowledgeable about films because I’m afraid I’ll borrow too liberally from the past when I should be creating something new we haven’t seen before. Failure, on the other hand… failure holds universal truths. Flat characters. Lack of tension. Telling instead of showing. You always learn more from failure than success. You take those failures with you when you sit down to write. Because half the battle of screenwriting is avoiding mistakes, and believe me, there’s an infinite field of landmines ahead of you.

However, there’s much to be learned from studying the development of great films. When you see how a story began, read the choppy ideas in its infancy stages, and then study the decisions the filmmakers made about the story to make it truly great, that’s where you find your lessons. Steven DeRosa has a great chapter on Rear Window in his book,
Writing with Hitchcock.

Consider this.

Rear Window started out as a short story by Cornell Woolrich published in Dime Detective in 1942. There was no love story. A man was stuck in his single bedroom with an unscreened bay window and not unlike the film, watched the nameless “rear window dwellers” and suspected a salesman named Thorwald of murdering his invalid wife.

First, the studio had a 13-page treatment written by playwright and director Joshua Logan. To brutally simply things, Logan provided a backbone to the film, although the details were kind of weak. Jeff was a sportswriter who enjoyed playing amateur sleuth when he had the time. He broke his leg by, uhh, slipping down stairs. He had a girlfriend by the name of Trink who was struggling as an actress. He didn't think she'd ever make it, which was the source of their conflict, and he couldn't commit to a relationship. In that pivotal scene where she’s caught inside Thorwald's apartment, she "acts" her way out convincing Jeff she's a great actress and thus, they get married.

When Hitch and his new writer, John Michael Hayes, got onboard, they made a number of significant, yet fascinating changes. They wanted to make Jeff’s occupation more EXCITING and the reason for his broken leg more DRAMATIC. Thus, they made him a photographer who was wounded in the line of duty. They also wanted a more plausible way for these two characters to meet. So he wasn’t just a photographer, but a foreign correspondent who had to do a fashion shoot and that’s how they met. I’ve said that characters come first. But when you have a great concept like Rear Window, I see nothing wrong with designing characters that fit perfectly into that concept.

Question – how much dialogue do you think would be required to establish all of this information about Jeff’s background, accident, and relationship to his girlfriend? Answer - NONE.

This was all established wordlessly in the opening shot that pans across Jeff’s apartment. Here’s Miriam from her
film breakdown: 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.

Isn’t that amazing? It’s debatable to me whether the scene that followed, the conversation Jeff has with his editor, was truly essential to the story. We didn’t need it. In any case, this opening sequence really should be the crowning achievement in film on the art of exposition. How many amateurs write master scene headings and then action lines to describe the look of a room when the materials inside the room has very little to do with the story? But here, the visuals were used to convey essential information to the audience.

Here’s John Michael:

“So that’s how one thing – to break his leg in an interesting way – led to his occupation, and led to something that would get him together with Lisa. That’s how it grew. But there was more you could do with it. He had a telescopic lens we could use later with the picture of the flowers going up and down in the garden. He had flashbulbs to fend off the villain. Out of this grew a whole lot of interesting things.”

The addition of Stella was a masterful creation on the part of Hayes, because this character was the hard-bitten realist. If she buys this story, even the most cynical viewer in the audience will buy it.

Let’s talk about the couple’s story. As you know, their different lifestyles became the source of their conflict. She was fascinated with him, and he was naturally interested in her. It was a twist suggested by Hitch that the woman chases after the man for a change. But Jeff figures models are frivolous and there wasn’t a chance for him. He’s a poor safari guy, and she’s wined and dined by wealthy men. And so, over the course of this mystery, it was really about this couple being tested and her proving herself to him in a deeper way. It was certainly deeper than what we encountered in Logan’s treatment. This was more than a struggling actress proving her skills to the man she loves. Here, she has to prove that she is much more as a person than how he views her, which was a woman only interested in a new dress, lobster dinner, and latest scandal. When she's caught in Thorwald's apartment and wiggles her finger to Stewart to indicate that she had the big piece of incriminating evidence, that is, Mrs. Thorwald's wedding ring, there was ALSO the implication, as Truffaut pointed out, that since she just proved herself to Stewart, this was her proposal to him. The two plots came together so perfectly in that one moment.

Of course, at this moment Stewart realizes how wrong he was, how great she is, how he can't live without her, which was taken out of Hayes’ real-life experience with his wife following a car accident. In any case, at that moment of Stewart’s revelation about Grace Kelly, the tables are immediately turned, the watcher becomes the watched, and his onetime dream of freeing himself from Kelly even at the prospect of "welcoming trouble," becomes his own real nightmare. It’s a story ROOTED IN THE CHARACTERS, who they are, what they do, with obstacles created for them, and a conflict that escalates and gets resolved within the context of the murder mystery.

There was also a bit of a problem with the disposal of Thorwald’s wife, because in an early treatment, Thorwald dumps his wife’s head in the newly poured concrete foundation at a construction site. This meant that Grace Kelly would have to follow Thorwald to the location, which we won’t see, be in a danger, which we won’t see, and then recount this whole adventure in a long-winded piece of verbal exposition. It was far better to have Thorwald bury her head in the garden.

The ending was a bit of a problem in Hayes’ first draft, too. Let me quote Derosa from his book:
“Thorwald is shot and killed by Coyne, which is consistent with the story and treatment. There is also an attempt to wrap up the stories of the surrounding windows neatly. Stella advises Miss Lonely Hearts, ‘Just throw away those pills, honey. If this face could trap a man, yours could get there.’ The newlyweds are observed. ‘H-a-a-r-r-e-e,’ calls the bride in a desirous tone, playing on the audience’s expectations of a honeymoon couple. ‘Start without me,’ calls the young groom, as the camera reveals they have been playing a game of chess. Miss Torso compliments the Songwriter for his lovely tune, and he invites her up to his apartment. Finally, the first draft ends with Coyne, Lisa, and Jeff. Coyne reveals, ‘You were right. There was something in that garden. And I just got a signal. It’s in Thorwald’s icebox now.’ Jeff replies dryly, ‘That reminds me. Two heads are better than one.” Ho hum.

Consider how they ended it with another long, single take that mirrored the opening shot. Here’s
Miriam again, “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. [The ‘new’ Lisa is wearing jeans and a cotton shirt] 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.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Screenwriting State of Emergency!


The year’s not quite over, but with all the scripts I’ve read so far, and believe me, I could build a fortress with all the scripts I’ve read, I’ve concluded that there’s an epidemic crisis in screenwriting today - LACK OF TENSION! Good ahead and laugh! The sad part is - I’m not even kidding. No one seems to care about it, or try to master it, or effectively use it in little genres like THRILLERS. I am so sick and tired of reading scripts, not just amateurs but pros as well, that fail to foster all the hair-raising, nerve-frazzling, unbearable tension I love.

Consider this. It’s an opening sequence to a classic movie from the late seventies, which you haven’t seen. That’s right. I guarantee that you have not seen this classic movie. Okay? Here’s the opening sequence in the film as described by the screenwriter:

A man sits in a car holding a bouquet of chrysanthemums. It’s evening, getting dark and raining. The car is a Humber Hawk and it’s parked on a cobblestone service road, next to a high brick wall. The man with the mums is listening to a voice we can’t quite make out. It could be the car radio, but his ear is cocked slightly toward the flowers.

The camera moves toward the windshield, descending slightly as it dollies forward peering into the car, about to show us what the man is doing with those mums. But when the camera arrives at the car, it surprises us, and further piques our interest, by panning off the windshield, over the wet cobblestone road, toward the brick wall. As the camera climbs the rough red bricks, going steadily higher, inducing dizziness in the viewer, the voice we’ve been hearing becomes clearer, as if the camera were hunting it. It’s an angry voice, an upper-class Oxbridge accent. “I’m here… hurry on now… can you hear? I said, I’m here.” When the camera is at the top, and before its descent, we get a glimpse of the surroundings on both sides of the wall. But instead of clarifying, it only serves to tease us more. In our one glance, from this height, we can see that inside the wall is a prison. There’s a tower, a few searchlights, and rude-looking cell blocks. On the outside, beyond the service road, we glimpse another large institution and a sign that says “Hammersmith Hospital.” But before we know what to make of that, the camera, our guide, moves down the wall toward the voice.

Inside, a tall, imperious man, dressed in prison garb, is huddled against a wall avoiding the lights and speaking urgently into a primitive walkie-talkie. “I’m here, damn it. I’m here. Now move.” The camera cuts to the outside (the very first cut in the scene) to the interior of the car. The driver speaks soothingly into his flowers. “That’s right then, I’m here. You’ll be fine… stay calm.” He starts to get out of the car, but his eyes register surprise and he stops talking. Across the service road, another car has parked and its headlights have gone off. There’s a young couple in the front, and they’re embracing feverishly. The man in the Humber Hawk mutters “Damn…” into his flowers and the voice from the other side, desperate now, says, “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“It’s bloody lovers’ lane.” He silences his flowers and then flashes his headlights at the second car, leering at the couple. They pull apart quickly, frightened by the light. The woman averts her eyes and her thwarted lover scowls and drives away. The mums are turned on again and a torrent of abuse comes from inside the prison. “Where the bloody hell are you..? You’ve bollixed it. You bloody Irish ass. I’m not going back. I’m not. I’m not going back.”

That’s all he says in his book. But I’ve read his script, too, and there’s more to this opening sequence. Man gets out of the car, turns off the flower-mic-thingee, and gets out a rope ladder. Headlights illuminate his boot as an old car approaches him. Inside’s an elderly couple. The woman leans across her driver husband and asks for directions. He answers. She can’t hear him. He repeats himself. Then there’s a question about where to park. Inside the prison, a movie’s about to finish and guards and prisoners will be entering the compound any minute. The prisoner’s getting frantic, yelling for the ladder. Outside, the elderly woman notices the flowers and wants details. Where did he buy them? Then she talks about her daughter-in-law whose liver is shot to hell. Inside, the prisoner is practically screaming for the ladder. There’s movement. They’re about to come out. Outside, not only is the couple still talking, but the man notices that there’s also a shift change at the hospital next door and more people are coming out into the street. Finally, the couple leaves. Rope ladder is thrown. The prisoner hurries over the wall just barely making it before getting caught but falls as he comes down and severely hurts himself.


Of this film and its screenwriter, well, I’ll let him explain it to you:

It could only be Hitchcock. Daring, outrageous, and complicated. Several things are happening at once, each component of the scene both clear and mysterious. It’s what Hitchcock liked to call “pure cinema.” By that, he meant a telling of a story in a way that has no effective equivalent in written narrative. It’s an emphasis on the visual, rather than the verbal. In the scene just described, the camera is doing one thing – traveling toward the mysterious mums; then before we can know what the flowers are, and who that fellow in the car is, the camera moves toward and then up and over the prison wall toward the angry voice. Now the soundtrack contains two unexplained voices, one desperate, the other soothing, while at the same time, the exact location of the activity is teasingly unclear. There are cars, a prison, a hospital, searchlights, and a rainy night that makes it even harder to know what we are being drawn toward. That all these things can happen simultaneously, and before we’re more than 45 seconds into the picture, is unique to the medium. Pure cinema. In fact, it was to be the opening of Hitchcock’s 54th film. Mortality intervened.

Of course, that film was to be called The Short Night but Hitch died, regrettably. It’s a fabulous, classic 70’s movie… in my head. And those quotes I provided came from screenwriter David Freeman and his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock.

Is it me or is that sequence just a hell of a lot of fun? How many new writers today would think to include an old couple asking a million questions in order to send the tension to excruciating heights? I LOVE the escalating tension! I love the way they slowly revealed important details non-verbally to the audience. I especially love the camera work, and yes, something like that CAN be written in a spec without using camera angles, without mentioning the camera, or writing (God forbid) “we see.” Just think about it. It’s not difficult.

Instead of me writing an even longer article in which I’d meditate on all the ins and outs of tension throughout cinema history, I’d like to throw this question out there to all of my brilliant readers:

What are the keys to tension?


Monday, August 18, 2008

The “Retards” of Tropic Thunder

Here’s CNN:

Dozens of people from organizations such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities protested the movie-industry spoof across the street from the film's Los Angeles premiere at Mann's Bruin Theatre on Monday. The protesters held up signs with slogans such as ‘Call me by my name, not by my label’ and chanted phrases like ‘Ban the movie, ban the word…’

‘When I heard about it, I felt really hurt inside,’ said Special Olympics global messenger Dustin Plunkett. ‘I cannot believe a writer could write something like that. It's the not the way that we want to be portrayed. We have feelings. We don't like the word retard. We are people. We're just like any other people out there. We want to be ourselves and not be discriminated against…’

Now get out your tissues. Here’s
Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, co-producer of Amistad, nephew of Ted Kennedy, and brother to Maria, wife of The Terminator:

I am so proud of everyone who turned out to Monday's premiere of the film Tropic Thunder to protest its unfortunate and humiliating portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities…

Together with the members of the international coalition, I am asking Steven Spielberg, Stacey Snider, Ben Stiller and the entire Tropic Thunder team to stop showing the film, and asking movie theaters and moviegoers to shut this movie out. Tropic Thunder is a colossal blunder. Don't show or see Tropic Thunder… I am disappointed that we were not consulted in the same manner as other minority groups depicted in the film and that there are 17 mentions of the "R-word" with one mention of the "N-word…"

The degrading use of the word ‘retard’ together with the broader humiliation of people with intellectual disabilities in the film goes way too far. When the R-word is casually bandied about and when bumbling, clueless caricatures designed to mimic the behavior of people with intellectual disabilities are on screen, they have an unmistakable outcome: They mock, directly or indirectly, people with intellectual disabilities. They perpetuate the worst stereotypes. They further exclusion and isolation. They are simply mean… Ban the R-word. Ban the movie. Take a stand.

Here’s part of the rebuttal by
Neil Miller: Adults should have the ability to process the jokes employed by Tropic Thunder within the context of the film and recognize that the joke doesn't target those with disabalities. It satirically takes aim at actors who exploit roles in which they play disabled characters in order to garner acclaim and win awards. Since children might not be able to make that connection or understand that context, the R-rating serves a strong role.

Let me say, first of all, that actors who exploit roles to garner acclaim is a phenomenon called redemptive debasement. It’s when a dishonored HW actor takes a belittling role to improve his/her stature. Coincidentally, Tom Cruise himself indulges in a bit of redemptive debasement in Tropic Thunder by making himself ugly, bald, and hairy as the studio boss. It’s unsettling how wholly evil Cruise behaved but he danced funny so we forgive him. His image might’ve recovered a little from the antics of the last few years by playing that role.

Miller also didn’t quite nail it. First, he misspelled "disabalities." Second, while it’s true the “retard” jokes take aim at actors exploiting roles of the mentally challenged, it’s a little more than that. It takes aim at how ignorant and insensitive some of these actors can be about the people they’re portraying, which is a contrast to how sensitive they can be in other ways. Sure, you’re shocked about the word at first, but what you’re really shocked about is how totally insensitive the actors are. Thus, they made their point. The joke is that these overly-sensitive actors are actually sensitive about no one else except themselves.

“Retard” was the perfect word.

The fact that the word is included shouldn’t even be a point of contention in a big country with free speech. Are we so intellectually bankrupt that we have knee-jerk reactions about a word without even considering its context? It’s the ideas behind the words that should be considered. To complain bitterly about a word only makes people want to say it that much more. Besides, even in the clips we saw of Simple Jack there was a scene where Jack says he “has a brain” and he is accepted. It’s the poor acting that got a laugh.

I’m hardcore when it comes to comedy. I believe comedians should poke fun at everyone without reservation. No one is safe. If you’re a comedian, I say cut your teeth on every thing under the sun without mercy. Bring everything to light. Because the act of comedians poking fun at everyone can be a perfectly healthy, cathartic experience in a society, because it bursts bubbles, releases tensions, makes us let go of trivial matters, brings us all down to the same level, and reminds us that we’re all flawed, funny, human beings. But we don’t really do that anymore because – oh no! – we might offend someone.

True brilliance is the way that you poke fun at those that make you angry, which is why I still love Richard Pryor. He used blue language and blue material, but the seering social commentary beneath the humor was, frankly, nothing short of brilliant. I love him.

Consider this, one of my favorite skits, “The Prison Play.” The fact that the guard is saying the n-word and denigrating homosexuals was (like “retard”) not intended to be an act of meanness on Pryor’s part toward those groups. Pryor is making fun of the racist guard. And he’s making fun of the racists in the play, too. And it works.

15 More Things Amateur Screenwriters Should Know

Hey guys,

You may recall the hilarious list of
12 Things All Amateurs Screenwriters Should Know, which was put together by our good friend and writer, Doc Strange. Well, he came up with 15 more funny insights that I thought were worth sharing. Hope you enjoy it.



Since posting my 12 pieces of advice here and having them published on Mystery Man's blog, I've been flooded with emails from people all over the world telling me how I've made the craft of screenwriting clear to them for the first time in their lives.

Once the original wave of thanks had passed, I realized that there was more, much more I could offer... 15 more actually, for a total of 27 hints, tips and pieces of advice, because I hear that you should publish lists in multiples of 10.

So without further ado, here are 15 more things every amateur screenwriter should know:

1) Preserving the continuity of a story is paramount to spec writing, which is why you should never use CONTINUOUS in your sluglines.

2) Mini-slugs are an effective way to preserve the pace of a story, which is why you should always write full slugs in your screenplay.

3) Writing a high concept screenplay and winning the Nicholl Fellowship are two excellent ways to break into the film industry. That is why only low concept dramas win the Nicholl Fellowship.

4) Everyone in the film industry always seems to be clamoring for the spotlight, which is why you should never write a spec about the film industry.

5) Only use flashbacks to move your story forward.

6) Proper format is essential to getting your story read because appearance is the first thing a reader notices, which is why if you have a great story, format isn't important.

7) Character flaws and likability are key to a well-written protagonist.

8) Sex sells, so you should concentrate on writing more marketable PG-13 specs.

9) To master the art of spec writing is to master the art of clarity which is why your action text should never exceed four lines at a time.

10) The best way to secure writing assignments in Hollywood is to market your achievements. Touting contest wins, options and sales will all lead you through the golden door, but choose your projects wisely as no one likes writing for a blowhard.

11) Procrastination is one of the biggest enemies you have as a writer so its always a good idea to take a some time off from your project when you get stuck fleshing out your story.

12) They say if you really want to get good at something, you should learn from the pros, which is why you should never read professionally written screenplays for scriptwriting tips.

13) Those who wish to break into Hollywood must always remember that story is king, so when you are planning your spec, keep in mind that concept is king.

14) Dialogue is a great device to use to develop your characters, backstory and motivations, so you should never use voice over to do such a thing.

And the most important piece of advice aside from the other most important piece of advice in the previous list:

15) It is important to hone your skills by reading guru books, attending classes and reading scripts. You want to be the best writer on the block because making it in Hollywood is all about who you know.

My final parting shot on these tips is to always remember that sequels are never as good as the original - so don't try to write them!

Stanley Kubrick's Boxes

Hey guys,

I just have to post this video so that I may include it in the 8-part series I did on
Kubrick’s Napoleon. You may recall in Part 1 how obsessed Stanley was about every detail, about how he had 18,000 documents and books about Napoleon, a monster index file of the 50 principal characters in the movie, which were all written on 3x5 cards and organized by the dates of every key event in Napoleon’s life from his birth to his death. It totaled roughly 25,000 index cards. He constructed a picture file retrieval system that had 15,000 images on all things Napoleon. The images were classified by subject, which also included “a visual signaling method,” “allowing cross-indexing of subjects to an almost unlimited degree of complexity and detail.”

Stanley had a lot of boxes.

There was also an article in
the Guardian by Jon Ronson, who two years after Stanley’s death, was given full access to Stanley’s boxes. I remember Stanley’s obsession about the door for the hooker in Eyes Wide Shut. Jon wrote, In one portable cabin, for example, there are hundreds and hundreds of boxes related to Eyes Wide Shut, marked EWS - Portman Square, EWS - Kensington & Chelsea, etc, etc. I choose the one marked EWS - Islington because that's where I live. Inside are hundreds of photographs of doorways. The doorway of my local video shop, Century Video, is here, as is the doorway of my dry cleaner's, Spots Suede Services on Upper Street. Then, as I continue to flick through the photographs, I find, to my astonishment, pictures of the doorways of the houses in my own street. Handwritten at the top of these photographs are the words, “Hooker doorway?”

Jon also made a three-part documentary about his experience going through Stanley’s boxes, which is now available, the entire three-part series, in the video above. Truly fascinating. Hope you enjoy it.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Eyes Wide Shut

Hey guys,

I have more sex questions! What do you think about this old article of mine on Eyes Wide Shut? I wrote this as part of our study on subtext.



The first and most obvious choice for subtext in this movie would be the attempt of the Hungarian, Sandor Szavost, to seduce Alice at Ziegler’s party. It began with Szavost asking her, “Did you ever read the Latin poet Ovid on the ‘Art of Love?” This was, of course, a flagrant invitation to adultery, because “Art of Love” was essentially about the art of taking on mistresses. Ovid was a dirty-boy version of Emily Post offering up rules of adultery-etiquette for Rome’s elite. It’s full of poetic advice about bribing the porters and the servants, becoming friendly with the girl’s maid, buying gifts, sending flattering letters, and basically stalking the intended target. In fact, Szavost drinking Alice’s glass is a move he lifted right out of Ovid’s manual. You get the impression that the Hungarian probably had to leave (or was banished from) his country much the same way Ovid was kicked out of Rome by Augustus.

But there’s more. The subtext I’d like to really focus on has to do with Bill and Alice’s interaction with their daughter, Helena, scenes I’m sure nobody cared to watch because they paid to see an adult film. However, I think there’s an important deeper meaning behind that interaction full of subtext unlike all of the other subtext in the movie. I have to set this up correctly first. I don’t know how well I can articulate this, but I’ll try…

We all know that Kubrick’s movies are never simply about the lead character’s journey. He doesn’t write stories like we do. He’s always thinking in broader terms and he’s making statements about mankind, history, civilization, power, etc. As
Tim Kreider so aptly pointed out, a Kubrick story should not be weighed by its psychology but by it sociology. He’s absolutely right. We went to see this movie with our eyes wide open for a wildly erotic visual feast in a normal psychological kind of story. Well, Stanley doesn't work that way. So then we (and the critics) all walked away saying, “What the hell was that all about?”

Kubrick tells us in the title that we're not going to really see what we’re looking at. And he's right, of course. We didn't see it. We still don't see it. We’re so blinded by the beauty, by the eroticism, and by that little orgy in the mansion that, like Bill and Alice, our eyes are wide shut to the deeper meaning of what we’re seeing. We’re still not acknowledging what was really going on. This is not a movie about sex and fantasy. In a way it was, but it wasn't. Kubrick’s deeper meaning here was, in fact, his condemnation of the ultra-wealthy and their devouring, demoralizing impact on society.

Consider the way Bill used his position and money time and again toward immoral ends. I’d go even further to say that the subtext of all the talk about money is really about sex. It’s also made very clear that Bill is not part of the ultra-elite in which he serves. (He has to sneak in to the orgy.) Just as Nick Nightingale is on call to play the piano wherever they tell him to go, Bill is on call to fix and cover up the things that go wrong like Mandy in Ziegler’s bathroom. Kubrick’s point was not simply to show Mandy’s perfect body so we can be titillated by it and recognize her later at the mansion, but in fact, it was to show us that beyond the façade of civilized society, beyond the beauty, glamour, and supreme wealth, there is gluttony, exploitation, and death. And yet, oddly enough, Bill wants to be a part of that club. In the opening scenes, he cares more about going to Ziegler’s party then looking at Alice and answering her question about how she looks. When he says “to be continued” to the model-nymphs at Ziegler’s party, we know that he is, indeed, tempted to go to that place “where the rainbow ends,” which coincidentally leads him to that Rainbow Costume Shop and on to the orgy at the mansion.

The orgy was not about the orgy. It was not even about reality. New York was not meant to look exactly like New York, which was a big complaint critics had at the time. For God’s sake, Stanley grew up in the Bronx. When Jon Ronson was invited to dig through the archives of Kubrick’s estate after his death, he found a box full of HUNDREDS of photos of doorways because Kubrick was obsessed about finding the perfect doorway for the hooker’s apartment. Of course, in the film, it looks no different than many doorways you’d find in Lower Manhattan. How can you not think that every detail in Kubrick’s film was not meticulously and intensely staged? Or that there was nothing in his movie that was not obsessively calculated? Stanley is not to be underestimated. You cannot disregard the work of a genius because you didn’t get it the first time you saw it.

Everything was designed to be very dream-like, wasn’t it? Do you think that when Bill was sitting in the cab imagining (which we see in black-and-white) Alice’s fantasy, that his dreams ended there? It could be argued that almost the entire film takes place in Bill’s mind. “Wait, wait, Mystery Man! Just hold on! How do you explain that part at the end when he found the mask on his pillow, which led to his breakdown and confession? That was real, wasn’t it? Didn’t Alice put that mask on the pillow to confront Bill?” Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to say that the organizers of the orgy snuck into his home and put the mask on his pillow to scare him. And yet another way of looking
at it is to say that only Bill saw a mask on a pillow. When Alice woke up, she never once acknowledged a mask.

So what was the orgy really about? It was not about an orgy. The visit to the mansion was the stuff of dreams and nightmares, of myths and legends. Bill finally reaches “the rainbow’s end,” the inner sanctum of the ultra-imperial-elite only to discover that they are horrifyingly evil. Kubrick gives an allegory through dream-like imagery to show us that the ultra-elite is depraved, soulless, gluttonous, and exploitative. That’s the point of the orgy. All those people who are so supremely powerful and wealthy (that if Bill knew who they were he “might not sleep so well”) begin their feast of collective consumption with an openly satanic ritual led by a high priest in a crimson gown, a figure no less scary than the devil himself. The kissing with the masks is so sterile it robs the exchange of any real human emotion. In fact, the masks and the cloaks turned all the men inside the mansion into variations of the same thing – empty, soulless, dehumanized figures of self-indulgence. And you just know that all of the women in the opening ceremony are going to be abused and passed along from one man to the next. This place is, at its core, a living organism of evil capable of killing anyone in order to preserve itself, which is why Bill’s life was in danger for penetrating the orgy (pardon the pun). This may have also been why Mandy was willing to give her life to save Bill’s because he once saved hers, because he was in her eyes the only decent human in the mansion worth saving.

And that brings us back to Alice (which will bring us to Helena). Because of Bill’s interest in a different life, in being part of the ultra-elite, he became uninvolved and disconnected from his wife which in turn made her nothing more than an object to him to be used whenever he wanted her. And her resentment of his attitude surfaces only in her dreams and when she’s stoned. From that first opening shot, she is presented to us as an object of desire, as she casually strips off her clothes for our amusement. Everyone from the babysitter to Ziegler to Szavost praises her only for her looks. Her daily regimen is pretty much devoted to rigorously maintaining her looks. She's constantly looking at herself in the mirror. During the film’s iconic moment (pictured at the top) of her husband walking up to her and starting to have sex with her, she looks at herself in the mirror, amused at first, then aroused, and just before the shot fades, she almost self-consciously acknowledges to herself in a disturbing way what she really is or even perhaps, what she’s managed to get for herself in life.

Kubrick likes to make visual statements about a character that requires more than one viewing to notice. (Or, thank God, you could look them up on the internet.) In any case, Kubrick visually associates Alice with all the other women in this movie, and he is, therefore, making statements about Alice as the prostitute wife. For instance, she’s identified with Mandy. They are both first presented to us in bathrooms. They both have a penchant for drugs. Mandy’s final night of her life in which “she got her brains fucked out” by many men is echoed disturbingly in Alice’s dream. Alice is also associated with Domino by the purple bed sheets and the similar dressing-table mirrors, essential for any true courtesan. It could be argued that there is only one woman in this film. All the women Bill encounters are various incarnations of the one he is truly seeking – his wife.

And then there is Helena, their daughter, named after the most beautiful woman in history. The subtext of all of their interaction with her is really about her being groomed to be the same kind of high-class object as her mo
ther. During the day, she is always with her, observing her, learning from her. She wants to stay up to watch “The Nutcracker,” which is, of course, about a little girl whose toy comes to life and turns into a handsome prince. The fact that this story takes place during Christmas-time is no coincidence. This is when consumerism is at its height. Later, when Helena reads the bedtime story, she recites, “before me when I jump into my bed.” Alice mouths it along with her. In the dining room, Alice helps Helena with a little math problem - how to calculate which boy has more money. There’s a photo of Helena in a purple dress in Bill’s office, eerily reminiscent of the one worn by Domino the night before.

In the final scene in the toy store, Helena’s carefully observed actions speak volumes. Alice said she was “expecting” them to take her “Christmas Shopping” (even though they already have piles of presents under the tree). Perhaps the trip was so Helena could shop for her friends, which is telling, because she only thinks about herself in the store. She wants everything in sight. She wants the blue baby carriage (similar to the blue stroller we saw twice outside Domino's door). Then she grabs an oversized teddy bear. Then she shows them a Barbie doll dressed as an angel, which was no coincidence, because Helena herself wore an angel costume in the opening sequence when she asked if she could watch “The Nutcracker.” Should I even mention the mound of bright red board games called “Magic Circle,” an allusion to the ritual involving the ring of prostitutes at the mansion? The red color of the boxes certainly bring to mind the carpeting in the great hall. Helena runs down an aisle full of stuffed tigers that look suspiciously similar to the one on Domino's bed...

While her parents decide to forget (and ignore) their deeper problems with a “fuck,” Helena dances around the store losing her soul. Their eyes, like ours, are still wide shut.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sex with Mystery Man!

Hey guys,

It’s possible I’ve been laboring intensely researching and writing an article for what might be a popular magazine. And it’s due mid-August for the Nov / Dec issue and it might be about Sex in Screenwriting.

However, I need some feedback, and I thought I’d turn to my ridiculously smart readers. I need your thoughts on three points:

1) I wrote an article last December on
Internet’s Impact on Cinema. What do you guys think about the following comments:

Sex no longer sells.

I wonder if the failure of Basic Instinct II should mark the end of an era where sex in film sells. As a result of free porn on the internet, which has
sent the porn industry into a financial freefall, people don’t look to movies to see nudity like they used to. Even if the hottest movie star shows skin in some new film, odds are that those images will get leaked on the web long before it ever hits the theaters, and thus, the film must fall back on something else to sell tickets – like story? I suspect sexy sells more nowadays than sex.

There was an interesting article by Dylan van Rijsbergen called
Sexing the Handbag. He wrote: “Time has come to start a new movement inventing new images of sexuality and pornography. Time has come for a new Jan Wolkers, male or female, someone who can write powerful stories of authentic sexuality. Time has come for all kinds of individuals in the media, art and literature to invigorate the tired imagery of commercial porn. Time has come for a slow sex movement, which stretches sexuality beyond the single moment of the male orgasm. Time has come to return sexuality to what it has always been: elusive, exciting, intense, playful, authentic, dynamic and sublime.

2) Can you share with me the best examples that come to mind in which a sex scene was absolutely crucial to the story?

3) This sounds random, I know, but can you think of any films in which an important character (not necessarily the protagonist) was asexual? The only character that comes to mind is Depp’s Willy Wonka of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

More questions may be forthcoming...