Screenplay 101: WITNESS

I’ve had more than my share of movie crushes.  Cary Grant in BRINGING UP BABY.  Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE.  Jean Paul Belmondo in BREATHLESS.  Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL.  Idris Elba in anything.

But few have stood the test of time more than Harrison Ford.  From the sexy, wisecracking Han Solo in STAR WARS to the sexy, whipcracking Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Ford pretty much had me at his crooked smile and devilish wink.  His Oscar-nominated portrayal of the hard-nosed cop John Book in WITNESS sealed my adoration and propelled him to leading man status.

#80 in the WGA’s 101 Best Written Screenplays, the script for WITNESS (1985) clearly merits study and praise for its razor-like plot development, layered characterizations, and crisp suspense. The writers William Kelley and Earl W. Wallace, from a story by Kelley, Wallace, and Pamela Wallace, elevate what could have been a run of the mill witness protection tale into a tense and sophisticated thriller tinged with romance and social commentary.

Although the WITNESS screenplay is often cited as a textbook example of how to raise the stakes, the scene that remains fresh in my memory is when the writers put a brake on the suspense to add weight to the love story.  As depicted in these pages from an undated draft, the scene takes place in a barn at night.  Anxious and feeling out of his element in Amish country, Book repairs his car battery.  Rachel (played by Kelly McGillis), the Amish widow and mother of the murder witness Book is charged with protecting, surprises Book by bringing in a lamp to ease the task.  When the car radio suddenly booms on and a pop tune breaks the silence, Rachel and Book’s two worlds collide.  Sparks ignite as they share a warm dance and tenderly laugh.

In the script, the song is not specified, but in the film, a remake of Sam Cooke’s soulful “Wonderful World” fills the air.  According to interviews with Peter Weir, the film’s director, Ford chose the song. Instead of the dialogue in the pages below, Ford/Book sings along, “Don’t know much about history… but I do know that I love you,” and dreamily wins over Rachel.  The scene skillfully exposes the tenderness behind Book’s hard exterior.

The mood is shattered by the appearance of Rachel’s stern elder and father-in-law. Eli.  Instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed, Rachel boldly stands up for herself.   It is a pivotal moment for Rachel’s character, and a sign that her relationship with Book has grown more complicated.

Despite the sharp writing, the success of the scene all hinges on Harrison Ford’s ability as Book to drawn in Rachel – and us — with simply a smile.  He makes us forget for a second about the danger outside — and realize that everyone hungers for a human connection, even tough guys like John Book. It’s hard to imagine another actor embodying the role with more charm or swagger or vulnerability beneath the armor.  Swoon.

Witness_64 Witness_65 Witness_66 Witness_67

Here’s the deal: Throughout 2014, we’re posting pages from every script on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, as chosen by Guild membership, because we have every one in our library. Sure, we have other scripts that didn’t make it onto the list, either because they didn’t make the cut or because they were produced after the list was generated (presumably SHARKNADO, which we totally have a copy of, is only in the latter category).

The Magical Wonders of
Archival Processing

Cataloging Elves

In honor of National Archives Month, here’s an exclusive sneak peek at how stacks and stacks of scripts, papers, photographs, disks and more are processed in the WGF Archive.

Imagine the last scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK where rows of boxes with rare treasures sit and gather dust…waiting to be discovered.  Or transport yourself to a cold, dark garage where musty papers and old LPs in warped, dingy boxes long for attention.  Believe it or not, this is how many collections arrive at the WGF Archive.  Ah, if only magical elves existed!

The truth is it takes many hours to assess, process, house and catalog a collection.  We wish it were as easy as simply placing a book on a shelf, but it requires time, expertise, creativity, research, supplies and special programs and software to organize the archival materials.

Thanks to donations and grants, such as the generous support of the Writers Guild of America, West, the WGF Archive is slowly but surely providing brief catalog records and increasing access to more collections.  And now we’re even featured at the Online Archive of California.  Look for more collections to appear in the future!

 

Can you please email me a copy of THOR? Pretty please?

FROM: Jimmy Joe von Screenwriter
TO: Writers Guild Foundation Library
RE: Please help

Hello,

I was wondering if you were able to send me a copy of the screenplay for the movie THOR, as I am a huge fan of superhero movies, Norse paganism, and former Australian soap opera actors with strong upper-body development. If you could send me a copy of the script I would be grateful.

Sincerely,
Jimmy Joe
capesrunesandhemsworths.tumblr.com

Hands down, requests for online copies of scripts represent the majority of the WGF’s emails. If “Do you have this script?” is our number one question, “Can I have a copy?” is probably number two.

We totally get it. Reading scripts is the best method for emerging writers and aspiring writers to study the craft. It’s the number one reason people visit the library and archive. The WGF collection includes a broad and unique range of script titles — from the classic “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the pilot for BREAKING BAD — and even hot-off-the-PDF scripts from the binge-worthy ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.

Here’s the catch – due to copyright reasons and donor agreements, we cannot give people copies of the scripts, either in person or via email. And we know that you can Google a script title and find a bevy of online sites with digital scripts ready to download. But those scripts aren’t always obtained – or distributed – by ethical means, and as a library and archive, we adhere to donation policies and copyright policies to protect the rights of donors and writers. These policies make it possible for donors to trust us with their material, which allows us to collect the most current television scripts not readily available online. Besides, our library is very cool and a great place to come for inspiration. Just ask Matthew Weiner. He was a frequent visitor to the library during his days as an emerging writer.

What? You don’t live in LA? We feel for you. We’re also jealous that you don’t have to endure two hours on the freeway during the 405 “Improvement” project. We know it’s a challenge for users outside Los Angeles to find scripts. To serve the out-of-towners and more, we’re making a concerted effort to share single pages from scripts for educational purposes via our Online Exhibits, Facebook page, Twitter and this very blog.

Don’t see a script in our catalog or on the shelf? Please shoot us an email. We can’t make any promises, but we’ll do our best to submit a material request to the writer, production company, studio or network. We’ll even search if another library or resource might have a copy. Hey — that’s how we finally received the scripts for MARON! We’ve got your back.