This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Road to Perdition

Today we dust off that Depression-era fedora and flatten the pedal on a rickety Model T to delve full-throttle into 2002’s crime-drama Road to Perdition written by David Self, adapted from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins. The flick follows a mob enforcer father and his sensitive-skewed son as they maraud across the Midwest robbing banks and evading all sides of the law. It’s equal parts Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Little Miss Sunshine somehow.

Symbolism is implemented to optimal effect in this screenplay. And themes are explored thoughtfully and thoroughly and characters fully-realized and presented with all the complexity and nuance that such fine writing warrants. Our two filial protagonists, Michael Sullivan, Sr. and Jr., are richly layered and undergo transformative journeys that not only muddy the moral waters of what’s right and wrong but strikes at the heart of humanity, coarse and often unscrupulous, and how and if it’s possible to retain integrity when the ethical rafters start crumbling around you.

It’s a finely honed story, one that uses a wide arsenal of verdant visual descriptions to communicate character subtleties. For example, the story takes place during the height of a socio-economic depression. We’re mid-winter and morale is at an all-time low. Optimism has been obliquely obliterated. And the bleak surroundings reflect the pervading grayness of the moralistic decisions that these characters must endure and the coldness of society that prevails in the trying times of the rock-bottom 1930s.

Less is more. The screenplay is all brute force when it comes to clocking you maximally with minimalistic dialogue. It’s nonverbal in its veracity. The story is lifted by the lack of loquaciousness. The script doesn’t brook superfluous sentences and instead relies heavily upon the unspoken spaces and subtext between dialogue. Each silence is kneaded with an abundance of emotional dimensions. We can see the internal wheels and cogs spinning wildly within in those moments of profound muteness. It’s a screenplay that is unabashedly trim and lean in execution.

The depiction of violence in the film is treated with an added aura of significance. The notion of inherited violence is exactingly examined and stands as the thematic fulcrum of the father and son relationship. Sullivan, Sr. seeks to shield his son from this seedy world of speakeasies and easy-murder. Sullivan shows signs of unresolved resentment as he sees much of himself in his son. His boy’s virtue and sense of justice is in jeopardy and Sullivan will stop at nothing to preserve it. Can a man seek a semblance of redemption through the salvaging of his son? The son himself questions whether or not he’s capable of such irredeemable acts but is conflicted as it took a horrendous family tragedy to finally bring them closer together. It’s an exemplary array of moralistic questions in which to build a strong screenplay around.

Suffice it to say the theme of fathers and sons plays a prominent role in the screenplay. It’s turgid with Turgenev-ness. Beyond the overt paternal back-and-forth between Sullivan and his son, there’s also the relationship between mob boss John Rooney and Sullivan himself. John is a surrogate father figure to Sullivan, and it makes his quest for vengeance all the more torturous. Their final climactic showdown is tinged with a bittersweetness as they share one last kindred exchange before what has to happen heartbreakingly happens.

It’s a well-weaved story that withstands the weathering of time. It’s a script that provokes thought and is economical in its ethos toward character studies. Silence begets more silence and acts of violence have import and go beyond mere gratuitous carnage. Set in a modernizing and weary world wherein lawlessness is slowing being eradicated and men must be held accountable for their sins. The story is mythic and epic in proportions and poses the same enduring questions that go unanswered today.

So beat a quick retreat to the library and get reading. It’s special.

And when you’re done excavating the cavernous depths of mankind’s capacity for corruptibility, lend your eyes to these other craftily-composed and newly-nabbed scripts:

  • The pilot episode of Fox’s The Orville penned by animation-maven Seth MacFarlane.
  • Emmy-nominated episode of The Americans “The Soviet Division” written by Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg.
  • HBO’s Westworld episode “The Bicameral Mind” written by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Yet another Emmy nominated script.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch.
  • And please ponder our everlastingly expanding catalog.

Duck soup.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: La Bamba

This week on Script Cavalcade, we’re plumbing the mythological subsurface of Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1988). The rollicking musical biopic celebrates its 30th anniversary this year with a handful of different screenings around LA and beyond. Writerly fans of La Bamba will be pleased to know that the WGF Library has two drafts of the screenplay in its collection – and one of them is signed with encouragement by the maestro himself.

The film tells the story of early, pioneering rocker Ritchie Valens of Pacoima, California, who died at 17 in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, but not before changing the face of American popular music by adapting a traditional Mexican folk song “La Bamba” into one of the most enduring rock hits of all time. A one-time migrant farmworker, Valens (whose birth name was Richard Valenzuelas) is a fantastic example of Mexican-descended influence on roots music and early rock ‘n roll. By telling Valens’ story, Valdez reveals an under-explored aspect of music culture, creating a folk icon for everyone, but especially for those who don’t get nearly as many opportunities to see themselves presented as nuanced heroes of their own big-screen narratives.

Luis Valdez, known widely as the “Father of Chicano Theater,” isn’t so much a screenwriter or playwright as he is a mythmaker. When we think of mythology, we often think of deeply traditional narratives and sacred stories that seek to explain the origin of the world, death and human nature. Such stories are often about Gods, heroes, animals or personifications of natural elements like mountains and sky. Valdez’s gift as a writer is his ability to make commentary on everyday life and the present-day social order by spinning it into myth. By reaching for the mythic underpinnings in his stories, Valdez elevates his narratives to the highest level of storytelling. That’s why his writing feels universal and endures.

This week, I present you with one simple scene. In La Bamba, like any great hero, Ritchie must look inward and connect with his roots to discover his power and his identity. In this case, Ritchie finds himself waking up hungover in Tijuana with a bizarre, old medicine man. The drama is laden with symbolism and has a kind of ancient subtext eking out of its pores. These are ideal study pages for writers looking to unearth the macro/mythic/universal-level themes in their personal stories. It’s motivation for all of us to study and connect with our own ancestry and culture – wherever it might originate — in order to draw from it in our work.

As a writer, seeing things on a mythological or cosmogonic level involves stripping away modern formality. In contemporary society, we often define ourselves by our professions, i.e. – “I’m an attorney;” “I’m a football player;” “I’m a sales technician,” etc. Writing at the mythic level involves looking beyond certain contemporary social constructions like one’s job title. Many ancient peoples believed that individuals had specific destinies—to become warriors, healers, wanderers, teachers or storytellers and that it was an individual’s job to realize one’s destiny and to journey to become it. If we look at life as though it is a myth and we view our own experience as though we’re heroes and heroines on a journey to discover who we are, we find certain universal rites of passage and we encounter people who initiate, instruct and heal us in different ways. If there don’t appear to be healers and shamans in modern society, it’s only because we’re not looking hard enough. The best writers—like Valdez—are not only able to see them, they’re able to reveal them in their writing.

Knowing that his lead character dies in a plane crash, Valdez is able to shape his script with the benefit of hindsight. He shows us Ritchie’s continual nightmares about his own death. By including a scene where Ritchie encounters a Curandero, or healer, who seems able to see into his soul and his fate, the writer makes a comment on existence in general, that it’s bigger than we could possibly understand and that death is an innate part of it, but also that death is a portal into something much, much larger and more infinite. This is more than just a musical biopic; it’s writing that makes us feel less alone and afraid because it taps into timeless aspects of personhood that affect every single human.

These are just a few things for you to contemplate the next time you sit down at your laptop.

If you’re looking for more scriptly wisdom to be inspired by, check out some of the library’s newest acquisitions.

  • Black Mirror’s Emmy-Winning “San Junipero” written by Charlie Brooker.
  • The Florida Project written by Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
  • The Glass Castle written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls.
  • Scripts from 2008’s TNT series Leverage, seasons 1 and 2.
  • The entire 1st season of NBC’s Marlon.

Debriefing: Ryan Kemp

As a participant and volunteer in the WGF’s Veterans Writing Project, I discovered that my fellow mentees are a wealth of knowledge. Their experiences and opinions helped (and continue to help) me grow exponentially as a writer. I feel strongly that these vets’ experiences need to be heard and shared with each other at the very least, if not also for posterity. Ideally, I’d like to help found an alumni association to solidify a post-program connection between the vets and the WGF. These interviews, which will be an ongoing blog series called Debriefing, are a good start towards that goal.

I first met writer Ryan Kemp a couple of years ago during my yearlong mentorship at the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project. I was also working as a volunteer for the program, and Ryan was a part of the incoming new track.

I’d like to say I taught him everything he knows, but the truth is, he was miles ahead of me (and most of my fellow mentees) before he even entered the program. Not surprisingly, he’s been up to a lot since then. I interviewed him about being a fellow veteran, writer, and alumnus of the WGF VWP.

Ryan on the set of Undateable (courtesy of Ryan Kemp).

Joshua Katz: Let’s start with a little bit about you. Where are you from? And what was your path to becoming a veteran?

Ryan Kemp: It’s a fun story. When I was in high school in Rochester, New York, I wasn’t the best student. My older brother joined the Marines. The recruiter came to pick him up, and as he was leaving, he pointed at me and said, “I’ll be back for him next year.” I [doubted him] because I was the furthest thing from it. Lo and behold, I didn’t really have a lot of ideas [for what to do after graduation]. Financially, college wasn’t an [option]; nobody in my family went to college. I wanted to go, but I also thought I needed structure. I went to the recruiter when I was 17 and my parents had to sign a waiver so I could enlist in 1996. I joined the Reserves, and two weeks after I turned 18, I went to Parris Island. I wish I joined active duty, but I also wouldn’t trade [the experience] I had in college.

J: What was the Reserve experience like?

R: I did about a year of training. It was a lot of fun. I grew up with firearms; my dad had them so [I was around] them at a young age. So, we got to learn how to repair guns.

After finishing Reserve training, I started at Oswego State University, New York. I started my degree in Graphic Design, but I ended up in Communications. Two weeks over the summer I would do combined arms exercises in Fort Knox. We got to work with a lot of different components of the Marine Corps. It was neat to work with so many people from all over the country. It was tough to balance the weekend drills with college; it wasn’t like the commercials. The commercial was like, “This weekend I programmed helicopters, built a bridge, and on Monday, class was a breeze.” That wasn’t my experience.

J: How did being a vet translate into the [path] of becoming a writer?

R: When I came back from Oswego, I started doing stand-up because I just found everything funny—my experiences, boot camp. I was cleaning carpets, waiting tables at Olive Garden, and doing stand-up, so I decided to go for it. I went to grad school at Syracuse, got a masters degree, and moved out to L.A.

I was part of those Marines where if you said, “We have to go dig this ditch,” I would be like, “yeah, let’s go f**king dig this ditch!” A lot of times in L.A. people would say, “okay, we’ve got to build this thing,” and then they would have meetings and talk about it for a while. By the time they were done [talking about it], I’d already be done.

J: That has been my experience [in L.A.] as well. People are amazed that you want to work hard, and when you’re done, you ask, “What’s next?”

R: Yeah, in the Marines, you learn that if someone tells you to do something, you do it. If they have to tell you twice, you f**ked up. Boot camp taught me the mantra I still live by: “It doesn’t matter if you want do it or if you can do it, you just have to do it.” But it wasn’t just that my work ethic was different. I think it takes a certain type of person to join the military. You don’t see a lot of higher-income people in the military.

Ryan (center) posing with his script for an episode of Undateable.

J: Us being two military gun guys—that’s a special thing. Everybody has their job, and if they do it, the machine works.

R: That’s another thing. We’re all on the same team.

J: How does that translate to the writers’ room?

R: There’s just so much conflict, discussions and meetings on meetings. I’m like, just do it. In the military, if you don’t make the right decision and follow orders, everybody [could] die. It’s great training. I’m working on Rosanne right now, which is great. The writers in this room are great, really smart. They’re down-to-earth and really nice people.

J: Do you agree with the statement: “There’s nothing better than working on a project when you look around the room and you know that everybody in it deserves to be where they are.”

R: Yes, it’s so awesome. I’m grateful [to have] that. The pilot I most recently wrote is the one I started in the WGF program, and it’s about three Marines who split a one-bedroom apartment after they get back from Afghanistan. It’s based on a real situation when I had two of my buddies who were sleeping on my couch for about four months. It was absolutely not sustainable, but it was so much fun. It was therapeutic bonding.

J: I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the WGF Veterans Writing Project. How did you get into it? Had you done any writing stuff before?

R: I came out to L.A., and I did things like The Comedy Store main stage, IO, UCLA extension programs, UCB. I worked on Scrubs for about five years, as a location assistant for about two seasons, a writer’s PA for two seasons, and a writer’s assistant for a season.

From left: Actress Sonal Shah, Scrubs and Undateable showrunner Bill Lawrence, Devin Mahoney (longtime friend and Thirtynothing creator), and Ryan. Credit: Sonal Shah’s Instagram.

J: How did you get into that?

R: Syracuse. I had a buddy who graduated before me working on Scrubs and that’s why I chose the program, because it was good for working out here. I got to work with some really great people. I had the opportunity to shadow [showrunner] Bill Lawrence. He’s a great guy. I ended up on Undateable, which was the same Bill Lawrence camp that I worked with on Scrubs.

As a script coordinator, you get to sit in on director’s notes, executive’s notes, network and studio, casting sessions. You learn so much from the production side, and studio side, and office side. It’s incredible. It’s like a Ph.D. in running a TV show. While I was at Undateable, I found out about the WGF Veterans Writing Project. I asked Bill if he would write a letter of recommendation for me, and he did. The program was so important for the same reasons I said before. It takes a certain type of person to join the military. It’s not about the stuff that happened, it’s about the camaraderie. All these men and women are your family; you rely on everyone. It’s something bigger and better than self-preservation.

J: Yes, [Hollywood] is a very… cynical town.

R: Cynical is a good word for it. I don’t want to offend anyone… but, in the Program, we’re all in this together, and we’re all trying to get into [the industry]. You’re not alone. We’re veterans, and we’re just as capable of doing the job and telling stories as anybody else.

I finished my pilot in the program, and Bill let me write an episode of Undateable. The first thing he said to the writers in the room was: “I’ve known Ryan longer than any of you, and he’s a Marine.” That got me a manager. I sent him the pilot I wrote in the WGF Program, and I got a lot of great reviews. I’m still rewriting it. I couldn’t have gotten where I am now with [the story] without [the WGF Program].

Ryan’s new web series.

J: What’s next for Ryan Kemp?

R: My web series: Thirtynothing. It’s about regular people trying to be adults. We have six episodes up. It’s [being done by] a bunch of people who have all been working in the industry for the last 10-12 years. We all just want to make our own content. These are people who have edited and produced hundreds of television episodes. I’ve written one, but I’ve script coordinated, like, 200 episodes of TV at this point.

J: What advice would you give to veterans who are trying to get into writing or entertainment?

R: Do your best every day. If anything gets in your way, turn your experiences, good or bad, and make them great and unique.

 

Joshua Keller Katz is a writer, Navy veteran and actor. He is also an alumnus of the WGF Veterans Writing Project and volunteer for the program. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and IMDb.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Punch-Drunk Love

This week’s Cavalcade has us delving deep into the lovelorn lullaby that is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 romantic-dramedy Punch-Drunk Love. It’s a screenplay that boasts one of the most bizarre but exceedingly endearing schlubs since Marty. It’s a tale that uses a full range of emotional and cinematic language to convey a heartbreaking yarn of yearning and arrival at acceptance. Romantic, existential, and otherwise.

The quick run-through: Loveable and lovesick Barry Egan is eking his way through existence. Continually battered and emasculated by his domineering seven sisters and working a dead-end job, he’s quickly reaching the end of his rope. Loneliness is the only enduring constant of the day. It’s just misery Monday through Friday.

But then a beacon of light wafts in. And he’s introduced to lilting and lovely Lena Leonard. And she, in turn, introduces a little wattage into his dimming and emotionally imperiled life. But between him and his last remaining chance at happiness lays a gauntlet of blackmailing phone-sex operators, a goon squad of boorish brothers, and Barry’s own inclination to self-sabotage a good thing. Love teeters precariously in the balance. And we’re along for the ride and root for the galoot throughout.

The screenplay lays on the symbolism pretty thick. From page one we’re befuddled by a wayward and mysterious harmonium that inexplicably ends up in Barry’s possession. This little organ, drubbed and discarded, becomes a visual surrogate for his own heart. This innocuous little instrument symbolizes a chance at romantic opportunity. Like love, it arrives unexpectedly (the harmonium is abandoned on a lonely road after a horrific car crash on page one). When Barry pilfers the harmonium from the curb he finds it a little worse for wear. But he nurtures it. He takes the time to coax it into something aurally beautiful. He mends the billows with duct tape, and the act becomes a redemptive gesture of nursing his own internal wounds.

As the story progresses, beleaguered Barry will steal away to these little solitary interludes. He’ll brush a key and release a mournful chord that reflects his current inner turmoil. Scene after scene passes, and he soon starts to find a rhythm. And the larger the role Lena plays in his life, the more dulcet his tunes start to become. It’s all a very rich metaphor for the effort and strain falling in love takes on the heart. The script seems to suggest, akin to playing Carnegie Hall, that intimacy requires practice, practice, practice. And by movie’s end, they’ve learned to make swelling, symphonic music together.

The telephone also plays a prominent symbolic role. The telephone becomes an apparatus of anxiety and tension for Barry. Trouble seems to ineluctably ensue whenever he reaches for one. It’s the source of unending woe that keeps coming in waves. From the phone scam that empties his pockets to the perpetual haranguing he receives from his sisters. A ringing phone is the harbinger of heartache for Barry. And quickly represents all that is alienating and lobs him further into loneliness. But as his relationship with Lena grows stronger, he wades deep within himself and discovers newfound funds of courage heretofore unavailable to him. He sheds the telephone permanently from his life. And severs any lingering insecurities it symbolizes.

It’s a riveting read. And proffers many a canny lesson in injecting subtle symbolism into a story. The screenplay packs a compact wallop at only ninety pages. But each page is just drenched in deliberate characterization and pronounced visual pathos.

So stock up on the pudding and be frequently-flown away to a world of revealing and romantic reverie. I’ll say with no exaggeration: This script is very food.

And when you’re finished with Punch-Drunk Love, feel free to peruse and pluck out some of these latest acquisitions in the library.

  • CBS television drama Picket Fences created by David E. Kelley.
  • Crime-drama Wiseguy created by Stephen J. Cannell.
  • CBS sitcom Newhart created by Barry Kemp.
  • Gimlet Media’s popular podcast Homecoming penned by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg.
  • And spare a picosecond to have a poke-about and palaver over the new First Pages: 1931 to 2016 exhibit in the library lobby.

And I would say that’s that, mattress man.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Bed, Bath and Beyond

Will & Grace is I Love Lucy… if Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz just happened to be queer. It’s a genius variation on the traditional sitcom that, in its day, helped to broaden the types of people and friendships that could be depicted on the small screen. Despite its sometimes exaggerated characterizations and decidedly un-PC humor, Will & Grace helped to make gay culture more visible and accessible to contemporary America. And let’s face it, it did so by making us belly laugh.

Deep, gut-based cackling is ultimately the point of the situation comedy, or “sitcom,” which I will go ahead and define as:

a series in which a fixed set of characters find themselves in a new comedic situation during each individual episode.

Because the format requires a consistent set of characters to get into shenanigans week after week, it’s no surprise that many sitcoms are about families. Of all the sitcoms to revive for our current times, Will & Grace seems, in my mind, a great choice. This is because, in addition to all the laughter, it helps to remind us of the types of chosen and non-nuclear families and support systems that can be found out in the world.

The WGF Library has almost the entire original run of Will & Grace scripts. I’m writing this blog post because – revival aside – the show provides an ideal study for writers looking to understand the mechanics of sitcom writing, especially the kind with one foot in tradition and one foot in attempting to push the format further socially. They’re scripts that offer basic instruction to those who read them on how to mix belly laughs with sweetness and feeling.

Let’s dive in to a script from the fourth season of the show called “Bed, Bath and Beyond.” Written by Jhoni Marchinko, this episode aired November 8, 2001, a time when America found itself turning to sitcoms for comfort in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Like a good gift, the best television episodes often come in the most plain and simple of packaging. “Bed, Bath and Beyond” and other episodes of its ilk are fantastic for reading because they utilize no guest stars. The story is also confined to just the main location of the series (in this case, that’s Will and Grace’s apartment). If you’re a writer trying to churn out a spec script for a sitcom, these will often be the tools or basic elements at your disposal.

In its 38 pages, this script tells the story of how—after expecting a marriage proposal from her boyfriend Nathan, but instead getting dumped—Grace is so full of misery and self-pity that she refuses to get out of bed. Beginning to worry, Will tries everything he can to get Grace up and moving and back out into the world.

That’s it. There’s one situation and one clean line of action to resolve it. The comedy in the episode comes particularly from Jack and Karen’s inability to help Will achieve this task in a helpful and sensitive way. Bedridden and sad, Grace plays “the straight woman” to their outrageous antics.

Watch how Jack tries to cheer Grace up by singing a medley of songs…

…but he only makes her feel worse.

Watch how Karen resorts to demanding help from Rosario…

When Rosario gets into the bedroom with Grace, she’s forced to play the straight woman as Grace inundates her with slides from her childhood, trying to determine where it all went wrong and delivering this tour de force monologue:

Running out of options, the gang eventually resorts to tossing Grace into the shower to “wash that man right out of her hair” but she counters by slipping out of their grip and telling them that she’s just not ready, that she must allow herself to be sad in her own way before she can feel better. In doing this, she tells each of them that she’s just not as strong as they are, inadvertently reminding each of them of the things in their lives that they could be heartbroken about.

She bums them out until they feel like going to bed and never getting up.

One of the final images—Will, Grace, Jack and Karen all lying in bed together—gives rise to the ultimate lesson of the episode. Crises and periods of woe are easier to bear when you have friends and family who understand what you’re going through and stand by you.

In polarizing and challenging times, this is the heart of the story that rears its head underneath the laughter. It’s a message that resonates.

While you’re at the library reading up on Will & Grace, be sure to check out some new additions to the collection, including:

  • A handful of scripts from The Bold Type created by Sarah Watson
  • Scripts from The Carol Burnett Show from the recently acquired Arnie Kogen collection
  • Scripts from 1996’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Bob Brush & Patrick Q. Page
  • The feature screenplay for Logan Lucky Written by Rebecca Blunt.

For more scripts, please search our ever-expanding library catalog and follow the Writers Guild Foundation on Twitter.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Children of Men

Profoundly prescient and starkly relevant to the acrimonious argy-bargy affairs of the world today, this week’s Cavalcade has us tread into the turbulent and societally troubled thriller-parable that is 2006’s Children of Men written by Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby. A screenplay that orchestrates a vast assortment of subtle cinematic themes speculating about the human condition, xenophobic hysteria run amok, and the nature of grief and hopelessness. It’s a script that levels you with lambent ideas and is just top-shelf science-fiction etched on every page.

The elevator pitch: The world over has been pitched into a crisis. An unexplainable and sustaining case of widespread infertility has blighted mankind and there hasn’t been a baby born in nearly two decades. Humanity is on the cusp of collapse and the outlook is bleak and maudlin for the surviving population. As thickets overtake playgrounds and nurseries grow eerily quiet, society has regressed to something atavistic and nihilistically primal.

The script is a masterclass in sneaking in allegorical tropes and embedding subtle soupcons of thematic imagery. Themes of hope, redemption, and fragile faith personified through rich characterization and narrative velocity. Theo Faron is our cynical and brow-beaten protagonist. A detached veteran of sorrow and melancholy from page one. He’s your prototypical everyman in every sense of the word. Grizzled and world-weary but ultimately resilient and duty-bound to meet the challenges of the mission foisted upon him. A mission that has him safeguarding the very future of humanity as he escorts a pregnant girl out from harm’s way. It’s very redolent of the Nativity but with our protagonists recast as a modern day Joseph and Mary. He becomes a reluctant savior figure. An earnest archetype that hits every one of Campbell’s hero tenets. By the script’s end, he earns his nugget of hard-fought hope and redemption.

Equal parts cynicism and sincerity. A pessimistic pollyanna.

Theo represents a lingering limn of light in an ever darkening world of despair and despondency. Resolve and courage in the face of surefire defeat and doom. These qualities make him a chivalric knight of yore. A Galahad with a slight case of alcoholism churned with nihilism. Readers are impelled to root for this highly flawed but virtuously upright figure. His suffering is biblical in scale. But he remains Quixotic in his brittle steadfastness. And that’s enough to keep us glued and emotionally invested in his crusade.

Take this scene. Basically the Obi-Wan-You’re-Our-Only-Hope scene.

The concept is an all too perspicacious perspective of a society wherein compassion and empathy fall by the wayside. We learn in this dystopian world, immigrants and refugees are regarded with a high degree of suspicion and discrimination. The dispossessed peoples are relegated to becoming second-class citizens and become perfect scapegoats for the world’s current woes. It’s a cinematic exaggeration of injustices we might see on our televisions today.

And in the world’s desperation, religious devotion bordering upon flagrant fervor comes to the forefront. The world’s remaining population perceive the contagious infertility as some kind of divine plague and scramble to make amends. The religious piety begets further balkanization of allegiances which leads to more and more societal fracturing and violence. Again, more incisive commentary and cinematic flourish on anti-immigration issues that are brimming over today and splayed all over our front pages.

The script is here at the library. Bradded and begging to be read and learned from. It’s a sophisticated and symbolism-heavy cautionary tale that will ultimately buoy you with optimism and newfound understanding. So read it. And learn to hoard hope again.

Once finished with Children of Men, feel free to move on along to these other newly minted scripts in our collection:

  • Practically an impossible amount of CBS’s Early Edition created by Ian Abrams, Patrick Q. Page, and Vik Rubenfeld. A finely-tuned fantasy drama.
  • The pilot for Fox comedy sitcom The Mick created by Dave and John Chernin.
  • Edgar Wright’s pedal-to-the-metal musical runaway romp Baby Driver.
  • The development bible for Netflix’s exceptional and Emmy-gobbling 80s sci-fi thriller Stranger Things created by the Duffer Brothers.

And if those don’t salve your scriptly itch, we’ve a nice plump catalog for you to pore over too.

Shantih shantih shantih.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: St. Elsewhere’s The Women

I don’t know about you, but I find the culmination of Emmy season to be a time of great reflection. When yearly TV accolades are handed out, I can’t help ruminating on all the best shows and episodes I’ve witnessed in my life and on everything I love about the medium.

For me, the best TV does a handful of things:

  • It follows the recipe for its genre or format, but adds new and emotionally challenging ingredients to give us an experience that’s recognizable and relatable, but ALSO surprising and cathartic.
  • It revels in characters and their flaws.
  • It finds unexpected humor and poignancy in tragic situations.
  • It is often about disparate people coming together as a community, family or team.
  • It feels like the best theater.

One show that tends to exemplify all these things is St. Elsewhere.

Today, we don’t think twice about equivocating television series to other storytelling mediums like literature or theater, but TV hasn’t always been held in such high esteem. In the 1980s, shows like St. Elsewhere and its predecessor by one season, Hill Street Blues, (both airing on NBC and produced by MTM Enterprises) helped to lift the television drama—and especially the television procedural—to a new level of artistry and credibility.

During its seven-year run, St. Elsewhere became known for its mold-breaking episodes that challenged its own pre-existing promise and structure. Thanks to a generous script donation from Ed Begley, Jr., who played Dr. Ehrlich on the show, the library has many of these scripts in its collection.

My recommended reading for this week is an episode from St. Elsewhere’s second season, entitled “The Women.” It won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series in 1984. I’m recommending it not simply because it won an Emmy but because it’s a great study episode for writers, packing tightly into one 60-page script all of my aforementioned tenets that make for great television.

Written by renowned playwright John Ford Noonan with a story by John Masius & Tom Fontana, “The Women” feels like a free-standing play within a series. The main characters in the episode are three female patients, all different ages and in the hospital for different reasons, sharing the same room. Over the course of the story, they bond, making their own micro community and helping each other to heal.

The episode is innovative in how it’s the guest actors who take the front seat, never to be seen again after this one episode, while the series regulars—the doctors—fill the supporting roles. Read how one of the patients, the 80-year-old Evelyn, interacts with Doctors Westphall and Craig:

Naturally, reading any produced television script can help a writer to hone their taste, preferences and ability to distinguish great writing from not-so-great writing (even though it’s all very subjective). If you’re like me and taking the time to reflect at the end of this Emmy season, why not stop by the library to read scripts from nominated shows?

We have everything from The Handmaid’s Tale to Atlanta to The Crown to that delightful “Thanksgiving” episode from Master of None. But while you’re reading those, why not also pick up scripts from classic Emmy award winners like St. Elsewhere, which can be seen in many ways as an influence on today’s contemporary shows?

Whatever your taste might be, you can always find both classic and contemporary series by searching our library catalog and stopping by for a visit.

And if I’ve piqued your interest about St. Elsewhere, you can also watch our Writer Speaks oral history interview with one half of its creators, Josh Brand, conducted with The Archive of American Television.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Lobster

How’s this for an opening sequence?

It’s a befuddling tableau to start with, to say the least. But encapsulates and establishes a tone for the rest of the picture tidily.

Come and scuttle across the floors of silent seas with Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 dystopian tragicomedy The Lobster. As far as concepts go, you’ll find none more bizarre and original than this absurdist arc. The long and short of it: Eligible singles are relocated to a lavish estate and given approximately 45 days to attract a romantic companion otherwise risk being transmogrified into an animal of their own choosing. It’s so out there, this idea. It’s science-fiction at its most scathing and socially penetrating. It’s a screenplay that bamboozles expectations and askews and eschews all notions of a traditional romantic comedy.

We’re introduced to lovelorn David. A world-class schlub who’s wife just absconded with another man damning David to this heart-wrenching race against the clock to find a new spouse. He’s deposited into his new bachelor lifestyle and now must keep in the company of a cadre of other equally romantically ill-equipped galoots who are also scrambling to avoid becoming part of a mopey menagerie.

It’s all a very trenchant satire on modern day dating and the incumbent anxieties and inanities that are part and parcel with the farce. The singles are bombarded daily by straight-faced propaganda about the ins and outs of successful courtship and couplehood. They are diligently daffy and delivered with the stoicism of an afterschool PSA. It very cannily mirrors the torrent of subtle inveigling we receive via images plastered on billboards and magazines everywhere reinforcing one point: You are not good enough and there is no place in society for sole individuals.

It only gets more preposterous. Singles can stay their inevitable animal-transformation by brandishing tranquilizer rifles and embarking on group hunts of the free-range escapee singles that inhabit the surrounding woods. Every renegade single captured buys them another day of humanhood. It ravenously pits singles against singles and suddenly it’s Darwinism at its most reprehensible.

David develops something like a niggling conscience. David manages to orchestrate an escape to the woods to join this lonely unit of hunted and finds himself experiencing the diametrically-opposite lifestyle. The loners in the woods, contrary to his previous predicament, are forbidden to pair off and indulge in romance. The pendulum swings far off into the other extreme as the ostracized denizens of the forest resolve to live out the rest of their lives in self-imposed exile and independence. It’s a grotesque commentary on the emotionally wounded who renounce romance knee-jerkedly and drag this burden of misplaced pride around their necks like an albatross.

Both the population living in the estate and in the woods live lives most foolhardy and of folly. A burlesque of senselessness. It’s acutely insightful when it comes to parsing out the travesty that is modern day dating and the societal conventions and seemingly arbitrary social construct of relationships.

It’s such an inscrutable script. But there’s also a weird wisdom that can be winnowed within its pages. An invitation to see past the unhealthy fixation on marriage and reverence for romance that can be hobbling to the wellbeing. It’s part parable and part surrealist theatre.

So stop by the library and awkwardly shuffle up to someone and ask if that seat’s taken. You can read this Best Original Screenplay nominee together and maybe, just maybe, uncover connections the old fashioned way sans tranquilizer darts.

And for the second, third, and umpteenth date you can read these other scripts together too. Just in and primed for perusal.

  • Taylor Sheridan’s slow-burn crime drama Wind River.
  • 2008’s comedy-drama Sunshine Cleaning written by Megan Holley about two ne’er-do-well sisters starting a bio-hazardous disposal business.
  • Every episode of season one of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience created by Lodge Kerrigan.

Have a click and a carom ‘round our catalog too, won’t you.

Scuttle, scuttle.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Adam’s Rib

Lauren Bacall gives Humphrey Bogart some side eye and he grins. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan argue about orgasms at Katz’s deli. Yammering Paul Newman talks a mostly silent Robert Redford’s ear off in the wild west in the late 1800s. Basically, two characters come together as partners on screen and if we’re lucky, their interactions and friction produce this happy spellbinding effect.

We call it chemistry, but often in the business of creating movies and television we treat it like it’s magic… as if it’s elusive and very difficult to conjure and we shouldn’t talk about it too loudly because we don’t want to squelch the enchantment.

Here’s a question for you.

What if we treated chemistry as what it is?

That is to say, a science.

The physical science of chemistry focuses on the properties and change of matter. Two substances are put together to create a chemical reaction. Their interaction transforms them together into a new substance.

Chemists create and study new substances by following a written formula, i.e. two hydrogen atoms put together with one oxygen atom create water (H2O).

What if we looked at screenwriters as chemists whose job it is to experiment and lay out a formula for the director to follow with actors?

People often define acting as reacting, which hints at its chemical nature. With a proper formula, actors—like elements—can come together to create a new and thrilling substance.

Just as there are endless ways to combine elements on the periodic table for a reaction, there are endless ways to combine different characters.

Professions, genders, races, classes, attitudes, ages, places of origin, abilities, modes of speaking—the list goes on and on. If you put together people who reside on opposite ends of any kind of spectrum, odds are they’ll complement each other in some way to create a satisfying kind of traction and momentum as they mitigate their differences and transform into something new. Think of one character as hot and one character as cold. When they join forces, they make a balmy breeze that we can’t get enough of… or perhaps they’re carbon and oxygen, combining to make something deadly and destructive, but still captivating to watch.

If you’re studying chemistry, you study the work of Marie Curie, John Dalton or Louis Pasteur. If you’re a screenwriter, you study how Nora Ephron, Spike Lee or William Goldman lay out character and story elements in a formula on the page.

It’s with these ideas in mind that I make my script recommendation this week. I’m excerpting a few pages from 1949’s Adams’s Rib, written by husband-and-wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, then eventually acted by the ultimate partners in chemistry, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

This is an earlier draft of the script, written before the characters’ names were changed to Adam and Amanda, respectively. In the movie, they’re both lawyers. She’s a well-spoken “We-can-do-it!” kind of woman and he’s a by-the-books, meat and potatoes (or is it po-tah-toes?) kind of guy. As the story goes on, they find themselves as prosecutor and defense attorney for a case in which a woman has attempted to murder her husband. The case draws their principles into direct conflict with one-another.

This is the first scene in which we see the two characters interact. Notice their cross objectives and tactics. They’re both looking for information. She would rather read it in the paper. He would rather get it out of her.

Down to the nuance in the spelling of the characters’ nicknames for each other (Pinky vs. Pinkie), the script for Adam’s Rib proves that chemistry can very much be written before it is played.

You can read more about Adam’s Rib writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin on the last page of the newest addition of the WGA’s Written By Magazine, which features another husband-and-wife writing team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon of The Big Sick on its cover. If it’s not out at the point of your reading this, it will be soon.

Find great examples of chemistry-oriented writing in The Big Sick script and these other titles at the library on your next visit:

His Girl Friday. Screenplay by Charles Lederer based on the 1928 play The Front Page by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur.

Out of Sight. Screenplay by Scott Frank based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.

Thelma & Louise. Written by Callie Khouri.

You’ve Got Mail. Screenplay by Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron based on the play “Parfumerie” by Nikolaus Laszlo.

And in the meantime, you can always search our catalog. Or perhaps you say catalogue.

 

 

 

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Renowned film critic Pauline Kael entitled her 1968 book “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Appositely titled as she asserts that these simple words conveyed most efficiently the basic appeal of movies: A touch of romance followed by a ricochet of bullets in there somewhere. The lusty and the lurid, hopefully with love and laughs betwixt too. This week’s script highlight presents a hefty helping from both categories. It’s Shane Black’s 2005 neo-noir comedy-crime caper Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Partly based upon Brett Halliday’s 1941 mystery novel Bodies Are Where You Find Them, this script is a first-rate example of melding the heartfelt with the hardboiled. And taking cues from literary detective gems of the past and whittling out something all too anew and fresh in the genre.

Bang Bang.

We’re introduced to the hapless and always harried Harry Lockhart. Loveable, loquacious, and likely to end up in a hoosegow. Trouble seeks out and finds Harry relentlessly. His face is a magnet for knuckle sandwiches. And he certainly has his fill throughout the course of the script. Though good-intentioned, his kidneys are eternally being kneaded by a wide variety of goons. Chivalric to a fault, here Harry intervenes with bruise-y results:

Kiss Kiss.

Dismiss the mounds of murders and film noir tropes and what we have here is a pretty jaunty romantic-comedy. There’s even a perfunctory meet-cute that’s by-the-books and ebullient with playful banter. Here’s Harry meeting our spunky heroine Harmony for the first time and trading jocular jabs:

I would submit that the romantic-comedy quality also pervades the platonic patter between Harry and his begrudging accomplice, Perry. There’s a brotherly blather that’s heavy on the histrionics and humor. The exchanges get heated and the dander rises readily, but the reader can also still hone onto the affection they harbor for one another. They bicker and scold like The Honeymooners. And it leavens the grisly narrative with just the right pinch of levity.

Again, a knucklehead. But a winsome one somehow.

The romantic-comedy angle is laid on thick and the mystery-thriller side even thicker. But not at all at the expense of the general madcap tomfoolery our hero finds himself in. He’s so bumbling and inept at times we can’t help but to look away and cringe at the buffoonery of it all. There’s a Woody Allen-perpetually-on-his-heels neurotic quality that really incites a surge in the audiences’ sympathy for him. That’s some skillful characterizing when we’re actively rooting for a fool.

Looping around back to that initial Pauline Kael reference about the title “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” she went on to claim, “this appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.” The statement is a mournful one. But solace can be found when auteurs like Shane Black deliver those basest of cinematic requisites whilst also imbuing the required ribaldry and violence with renewed meaning. Shane Black has an innate understanding of the sui generis alchemy when the sultry is sprinkled on the brutality. And this screenplay touts his keen cognizance of that.

So drop on by the library. Maybe stir the kettle a bit. Stick out a hat and see who shoots at it.

And Catalog. Sleuth around some.

For here be new scriptly nonesuch such as:

  • FX’s anthology series Feud created by Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen, and Michael Zam dramatizing the vast vitriol and everlasting vendetta between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
  • Disney’s family-friendly and female-empowering visual feast Moana written by Jared Bush.
  • The riveting and richly realized Netflix crime-drama Ozark created by Bill Dubuque.
  • Season two of Love created by Judd Apatow, Lesley Arfin, and Paul Rust about the pratfalls, paradise, and perpetual penance involved in LA dating.