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.

The Courage of Juror # 8

This Sunday, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will screen 12 Angry Men (1957) as the final film in its series, Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen, co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. Reginald Rose‘s brilliant screenplay, first written for television in 1954, dramatizes the deliberations of a jury whose members are asked to decide the fate of an underprivileged teenager accused of murdering his father.  Some of the jurors are hateful and bigoted, others are just bored, thoughtless, or intimidated, but almost all of them are willing to declare the young man guilty based on their own prejudices, fears, or indifference.  The facts of the case are examined only because one of the men, Juror # 8 (Henry Fonda), is willing to stand alone and demand that the jury give the defendant a fair hearing. Though it was written more than sixty years ago, it goes without saying that Rose’s screenplay is as relevant and thought-provoking as ever — a story that reminds us of what it means to be courageous when faced with injustice and intimidation.

From the opening pages of Rose’s screenplay, here are his brief but incisive descriptions of the men of the jury, who are identified in the film only by their juror numbers.  

 

To read this screenplay and other works by Reginald Rose, as well as scripts by the other writers featured in this film series, visit the Writers Guild Foundation Shavelson-Webb Library.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Norma Rae

This week, the WGF convened a panel called Women Warriors: Writing Strong Female Protagonists, which means I got to listen to Amy Berg, Liz Flahive, Allan Heinberg and Moira Walley-Beckett—all of whom have created or added dimension to some of the most commanding female characters in very recent memory—discuss the fictional (and non-fictional) women who have had a profound influence on their writing. They brought up everybody from Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett to Anne of Green Gables, Buffy, The Bionic Woman and Nancy Drew to the women of current TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Insecure, Fleabag and Catastrophe.

As they conversed about the female characters who’ve inspired them, I began thinking about the female characters who’ve inspired me… and thus I began this blog post about one of my favorite characters of all time.

Her name is Norma Rae Webster. She’s a scrappy, working woman, toiling away in a cotton mill in a nameless town in the American south. The titular character of her own film (Norma Rae, 1979), she grows to become a principled and deeply inspiring hero.

If Summer of 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that we really respond to female heroes. They compel us to stand up, take action and be better people.

As screenwriters, the question then becomes how do we create such heroes?

In my mind, Norma Rae provides a kind of heroism rubric for those writers trying to give any character—female or otherwise—more guts and agency. As we learned in the panel on Wednesday night, it’s characters who get up and TRY in the face of adversity, rather than those who remain passive or those who force themselves into our consciousness.

Norma Rae was written by famous screenwriting husband-and-wife team, Irving Ravetch and Harriett Frank, Jr. Their work is sweat-soaked southern storytelling at its very best. The other film of theirs worth checking out is 1963’s Hud. While Irving has since passed away, Harriett just celebrated her 100th birthday this year. Talk about a woman warrior.

The writing team finds their inspiration in Crystal Lee Sutton of North Carolina, a worker who helped mills to unionize in 1973, losing her job in the process of standing up against unfair wages and treatment of her fellow workers. Norma Rae Webster is a fictionalized version of her. The ultimate underdog heroine, she’s characterized as a promiscuous single mother of two who occasionally takes a backhand from the men she sleeps with, who still lives with her parents and is probably kept down by low self-worth more than she cares to admit. Her whole family works at the mill and has never seen a raise. In fact, it seems like their treatment on the job continues to get worse and worse, and something just no longer sits right with Norma.

What makes Norma a formidable contradiction is her big mouth. While the people she’s surrounded by seem almost sedated into submission, tolerating being worked to the bone, Norma has an almost heightened sense of empathy. She speaks her mind and is an unrelenting bulldog in seeing workplace injustices called out. She’s the textbook definition of a diamond in the rough—a hero waiting to emerge from a so-called riffraff-y veneer.

When a labor organizer named Reuben Warshsawsky, a leftist from New York City, comes to town, he sees the potential in Norma and tries to get her to join him in starting a union at the mill. He’s committed to giving more say to workers and holding the powerful bosses accountable. He’s come down to sell the mill workers on unionizing. However, as a Jewish, liberal intellectual with a big mouth of his own, he does not fit in with the small southern town where he’s been sent. In a sense, he needs Norma to connect with her fellow mill workers, knowing that she can relate and reach them in a way that he cannot.

Reuben and Norma are opposites, whose character traits become more well-defined when they are paired with one another. It’s fantastic to watch his cultural snobbery at odds with her salt-of-the-earth panache. At the end of the day, Reuben helps Norma to realize her moral imperative to help give the mill workers a voice. Once Norma feels empowered, she literally DOESN’T STOP.

It’s all the more stirring to witness as she’s not a hulking prizefighter like Marlon Brando standing up to mob bosses in On the Waterfront… she’s a tiny, little woman. She’s Sally Field.

When Norma begins to stand up, speak out and push back, things don’t get better for her, they get worse. But what ensues is elucidation a-plenty for anybody looking to write a female protagonist who TRIES.

When the sweet husband she’s managed to snag over the course of the story doesn’t approve of all her time being taken up by organizing…

She keeps going, regardless. When she and Reuben aren’t taken seriously by other employees, particularly the male ones…

She persists. When the local church insinuates that what she’s doing might be uncouth, she doesn’t abandon her faith, but she temporarily walks away from the institution until it can come to its senses…

When the corrupted mill management makes things worse for all the employees, doubling down on them due to their organizing, trying to punish them into ceasing, many of the mill hands forcefully tell Norma and Reuben to quit…

… but they don’t. When the labor union itself comes to town and tells Reuben to stop working with Norma because she doesn’t fit with their definition of what a good labor organizer is…

… she doesn’t cower away. She keeps striding toward her objective anyway.

When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it…

… Norma raises her voice and speaks louder. Maybe that last point is worth reiterating again. When leadership makes the white workers think the black workers will take over the union if they form it, Norma raises the volume on her voice and speaks louder, refusing to cease calling out leadership’s scapegoating.

Finally, when management threatens to fire her and have her taken away by the police, Norma hops up on a table and holds up a makeshift sign that reads union, inspiring everybody in the mill to stop working and stand with her. It’s the kind of scene that jerks at the tear ducts the same way that the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman does. Here is a woman who has been told no and stop six million different ways, but she stands up on the pedestal; she charges across the trench anyway. Only here, after her triumphant moment in which she finally gains the unwavering support from her fellow mill workers, Norma isn’t pulled away for photographs or hailed as a hero. Instead, she’s arrested and taken to jail.

Often after we win a little bit in our struggle for justice, there’s something even more menacing and unexpected around the corner that knocks us back a few steps or drags us away.

Here, Norma’s friend and colleague Reuben won’t let her give up on herself, especially at this low point, not when they’ve managed to get this far.

He proves to her that while standing up for what’s right isn’t always a walk in the park, a person doesn’t have to do it alone.

I won’t say what happens next because I think you should come to the WGF Library and read the script, but in the end, for her persistence despite major obstacles, defamation and personal setbacks, Norma gains more than just the camaraderie and protection of a union. By stepping up and being a hero, she gains the knowledge and confidence that she IS a hero. She’s more than just a waste of space or piece of trash. By acting to make a difference, she sets herself free.

2017 has been the year of Wonder Woman, GLOW, handmaids, Anne of Green Gables, cold war spies with impeccable combat skills, soon-to-be-tellings of Billie Jean King whooping Bobby Riggs’ tush and so much more. It’s all nothing short of emboldening and a big step forward.

But it’s also been a year and especially a summer that’s shown us both how necessary and how difficult it can be to stand up to corruption, prejudice and hatred. Standing up can come at a great personal cost. If we push hard enough, it can practically ruin us, but relentless protagonists like Norma Rae prove that we can.

Characters always reflect a bit of ourselves, and it’s worth it to create those we aspire to be.

It starts with the writer.

And if you need a bit of inspiration, you can read this script and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Insecure, The Handmaid’s TaleCatastrophe, GLOW, Wonder Woman, the pilots for Fleabag and The Bionic Woman and many other scripts that we, the library staff, will be thrilled to recommend to you.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: O Brother Where Art Thou?

Few films can better achieve the subtle literary epic quality that Joel and Ethan Coen manage to conjure in their Depression-era rural rollick O Brother, Where Art Thou? They masterfully homage an august and timeless Homeric work and contract and expand it narratively to wring out something altogether unique and memorable to modern audiences. The film follows the foibles of three stumblebum miscreants as they make their way through many a trial and tribulation across the dusty Mississippi Delta, encountering a collection of charming crackpots along the way.

The dialogue. The dialogue caroms and coos like the electrifying washboard bluegrass that injects this screenplay with such aural color. The pages hum with a full spectrum of forgotten musical traditions of the past, from gospel to Appalachian ballads to tin pan alley blues. The screenwriters really tap into an amusing and antiquated patois that captures adequately the era and parlance of the Deep South. Our loquacious lead, Ulysses Everett McGill, offers us a wonderfully confabulated cobble of words throughout. Labyrinthine yet lyrical:

The symbolism. The screenplay is fraught with interweaved symbolism that furthers the storytelling skillfully. Everett is constantly fussing about his hair and a fervent customer of a certain brand of hair treatment. The laughable and alliteratively labeled Dapper Dan can becomes a visual symbol of our protagonist’s fatal flaw: His narcissism and inexhaustible braggadocio. The Dapper Dan tins ultimately nigh lead to his downfall as the scent of the pomade is caught by the jailers’ hounds constantly nipping at their heels the entirety of the script.

And that symbolism just keeps providing a tide of insights. During the climax of the script, our hero is bound and knee-bent before a noose. His long and windy misadventures have inextricably led him to this miserable end. Everett peers skyward and the emotional walls finally come crumbling down. He rises above the vanities and insecurities that have hobbled him throughout the narrative. His emotional trajectory culminates at this moment of truth wherein he is resigned to acknowledge his shortcomings and make sincere entreaties toward redemption. His heartrending valediction:

And like strained mercy sprung forth from Poseidon’s trident, a biblical and baptismal flood comes deus ex machina-cally crashing down upon him and washes away the mistakes of the past. An earnest salvation upon his fervent pleas of contrition.  Absolving him and revealing to us Everett: battered, bruised, but better for it. A changed man by the script’s last page.

The character relationships. These three fools and charlatans are a finely tuned ensemble of comedic craft. From our first glimpse of them, it’s a sad sight. They’re truly men of constant sorrow. A certain pathos of pity is taken on these wretched ne’er-do-well vagabonds. We’re introduced to them in chains and on the run and generally always a hair’s distance away from their next felony. But they still pilfer our sympathies. We like them. We root for them. Through their bumblings and bickerings. It’s an antebellum Three Stooges.

All that’s missing are a few well-placed nyuk nyuk nyuks.

So this script is a wealth of writerly wisdom when it comes to cleverly employing bygone source material and winnowing out something fresh and anew. The script’s stark and sepia-toned realism laced with laughs and coarse katzenjammers. So grab a gopher, dab a little smellum in your coiffure, and R-U-N-N-O-F-T to the library and have a go at this gorgeously garrulous script.

You’ll also need to ride a roll top desk to withstand the veritable deluge of new scripts that have just washed ashore our sagging shelves. The latest and greatest include:

  • All of the scripts for HBO’s bitingly beady-eyed dark comedy miniseries Big Little Lies created by David E. Kelley based upon the book by Liane Moriarty.
  • Starz’s fantasy-drama series American Gods based upon the novel by Neil Gaiman.
  • A clutch of season two scripts for Aziz Ansari’s Millennially mendacious Master of None.

Also, catalog, for your clicking druthers.

Shake a leg, Junior.  We’re bona fide.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Blossom Blossoms

It was the TV decade that brought us Boy Meets World, My So-Called Life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and everything in between. It was the 1990s – and the same poignant, truthful focus that John Hughes brought to movies about teens and growing up in the 1980s seemed to gradually make its way to small screens. From sitcoms to one-hour dramas, TV shows from the 90s took a Hughes-ian cue and treated the subject of coming-of-age not with exaggeration, but with subtlety and seriousness, often finding honest humor as a meaningful by-product. Perhaps this is why those of us who literally came of age during the 1990s often look back on the decade with fondness (whether it was actually a great time to be alive or not).

Shows like these help us to recognize the lessons inherent in our own experience and offer us instruction on how to face the newness and scariness of getting older.

A particularly phenomenal example of “lessons-in-growing-up” TV is the second episode of the series Blossom. Entitled “Blossom Blossoms” and written by Racelle Rosett Shaefer, it was the first episode of the show to air when the show was ordered as a mid-season replacement by NBC in January of 1991. (Its pilot had already aired in July of the previous year). As a part of the 90s theme we’ve been exploring on our social media channels this week, I want to implore you to check out this script the next time you’re in the WGF Library.

The general gist: Blossom, an adolescent girl, being raised by her single musician father and two goofy older brothers starts her period… and she can find nobody to provide her with the understanding and instruction that she needs as she cycles out of girlhood and into womanhood.

The episode draws attention and gives gravitas to the uniquely feminine part of growing up, which up until this point was very often under or misrepresented or made out to be some kind of horror show (Carrie, anyone?). In fact, the subplot finds Blossom’s brothers, Joey and Anthony, making horror videos for school about things that can incite violence. As the story progresses, the episode lovingly references and subverts “The Carrie trope” and we learn with Blossom that one thing that isn’t violent or scary, but completely natural is getting one’s period – and it’s okay to talk about it.

I write in a previous post on this blog about Lisa Simpson trying to find somebody to understand her struggle with sadness and how her mother steps in to empathize and help at the 11th hour. What’s interesting about Blossom is that she doesn’t have a mother to give her instruction during this time. She has her father, her brothers, her best friend and an older woman named Agnes, who lives next door, but there’s nobody to give her the kind of support she really needs (or so she thinks). With her father and brothers, she’s afraid to even broach the subject.

It’s up to Blossom’s Father, Nick, to step in and zoom past his socially prescribed role and offer a kind of compassionate mothering to his kid. When Blossom gets up the nerve to tell her Dad she got her period, he sits her down and talks with her while attempting to braid her hair. He vocally celebrates that his daughter is getting older and encourages his sons to do the same. It’s sweet and almost revolutionary to see a rock star Dad avoid falling into the pitfalls of storytelling banality. He’s not on the road, having abandoned his family. He’s more than there for them.

With television writing like this, a critical part of growing up is not only brought to light, but championed. Girls get reinforcement that their experience is valid, learning that it’s okay to talk about their periods and ask for help when they need it, that it shouldn’t be something catastrophic, or to be ashamed of – and perhaps fathers, mothers, brothers, friends and chosen families too can find an example of how to support each other.

If you want more 90s teen-focused TV, be sure to peruse our catalog. Along with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, you can find:

A newly acquired draft of The Fifth Element by Luc Besson & Robert Mark Kamen,

Season 3 of Starz’ Power,

and many, many episodes of 1980s detective procedural, Remington Steele.

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: The Royal Tenenbaums

This week we inspect the sinking battleship of idiosyncratic eclecticism that is 2001’s comedy-drama The Royal Tenenbaums written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. This ostentatiously oddball screenplay is a finely tuned saga of a once-brilliant family undergoing a severe existential maelstrom. It’s your classic Miltonian tale of a tragicomic figure felled by hubris and finding the real drama in picking up the pieces and pursuing something like redemption. And the writers deliver this epic chronicle of seeking grace in the face of tragedy with a pinch-perfect sprinkle of absurdity and sapience. It’s a trenchant tumble of whimsical humor and emotional hurly-burlies.  

The writers corral a large ensemble cast of characters and dedicate just the right amount of screen time to each and every one. Having numerous main players can sometimes come off a little overwrought, unwieldy, and ultimately a tangle of under-developed entities we haven’t had enough time to adequately identify with. But with this script, the writers have managed to wring optimal empathy from this gaggle of alluring and flawed characters. It’s testament to the writing’s economy of language that it so accurately hits home with us and we sympathize and gravitate so to these charmingly crackpot characters. We pretty much have them precisely sized up from frame one:

The character that we’re forced to warm up to foremost is the grand patriarch himself, ol’ pappy Royal Tenenbaum. Life has dealt Royal some cruel blows. He’s the runner whom the race outran. Washed out and weary, he’s a blowhard braggart. He’s no-good and a proper villain and a crook. But we dote on him like an elderly uncle figure who is slowly coming to terms with the bastard he was in the past. It’s a theme that audiences can’t help but relate to. The idea of someone reckoning for the sins of yesteryear and seeking a sort of thwarted sense of reconciliation with his estranged family. Maybe we commiserate with Royal because there’s a little bit of his dogged determination in all of us to salvage ourselves and re-steer the ship toward the atolls of atonement.

There’s hope for the scoundrel yet.

He’s also just a bonafide badass. Getting more pleasantly petulant with age, he’s the last of the gentleman scallywags. He’s seen and done it all but still can’t quite get down the nuances of normal socially acceptable behavior. But one must proffer the proper plaudits for his acumen for diplomacy and intercultural experiences abroad.

The writing is top shelf and it becomes but all too apparent why this was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay along with moseying its way to the BBC’s 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century. It’s a script that yanks every heart string taut and deflates both lungs with prolonged bouts of laughter. A tough writerly one-two to inflict and line to tip-toe. But all in all, a script definitely worth a damn.

Tinctured with tenderness, the tale of the Tenenbaums will relentlessly rouse your funny femur. So shag ass and galumph to our shelves and steal away into its pages for a spell. And feel free to take off your shoes and one of your socks and cry over how good this script is.

And when you’re done and dusted with The Royal Tenenbaums, there’re still heaps of fresh scripts all primed for you to plow your proboscis into. Such as every episode of Hulu’s runaway hit The Handmaid’s Tale. Or a helping of the comedic-stylings of The Red Skelton Show that ran for an inexhaustible two decades producing a dizzying and cancellation-defying 672 episodes. That’s legs.  

You’re also encouraged to drag a languid finger along our digital stacks for other assorted scriptly serenity.

Tad Mosel: From Golden Age TV to Calvin Coolidge High

Working at the WGF Library for the past few months has given me the opportunity to discover many writers whose names are new to me. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that one of these writers is the brilliant Tad Mosel, whose 1967 film Up the Down Staircase will screen this Sunday as part of the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s film series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen,” co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. 

Tad Mosel was born in Ohio in 1922, but moved to New York at the age of nine. He developed an early interest in the theater, and went on to study drama at Amherst College, completing his degree after serving three years in the Army. After the war, Mosel attended Yale and Columbia, landed a non-speaking role in the 1949 Broadway show At War With the Army, and started writing plays. Along with so many other young writers at the time, Mosel heard that television producers were desperate for material, so he studied the shows on the air and began writing and submitting television scripts.

Cover photo of Tad Mosel from Other People’s Houses: Six Television Plays by Tad Mosel (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956)

Mosel finally found success in 1953, when several of his teleplays — including Ernie Barger is 50, Other People’s Houses, and The Haven — were produced for the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Mosel started working with producer Fred Coe, who became his mentor and close collaborator. This was the heyday of live television drama, and Mosel’s thoughtful character-centered stories were an ideal fit with the new medium. Over the next ten years, Mosel wrote many more original and adapted plays for television, including four for the prestigious anthology program Playhouse 90. Mosel also went back to the stage, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for his play All the Way Home, adapted from the novel A Death in the Family by James Agee.

Highly acclaimed for both his television and stage work, Mosel was a bit of a latecomer to the big screen, and in the end, had only two feature films produced. The first, Dear Heart (1964), was an adaptation of Mosel’s The Out-of-Towners, a television play that originally aired on Studio One in 1957. Directed by Delbert Mann, the movie version starred Geraldine Page as Evie Jackson, the lovelorn postmistress who falls for a traveling salesman played by Glenn Ford. (On television, the role of Evie was played by Eileen Heckart, a friend and frequent actress-collaborator of Mosel’s who also appears in Up the Down Staircase as Henrietta Pastorfield.)

The second film credit for Mosel was Up the Down Staircase, based on the first novel by Bel Kaufman, a longtime teacher who tapped into the zeitgeist with her brilliant account of life inside a public high school.  In an interview with the Archive of American Television in 1997, Mosel talked about getting the opportunity to write the screen adaptation of Kaufman’s runaway best-seller. He had been working on developing another project with producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan, and happened to be with the producing partners when they learned that Warner Bros. had won a bidding war and secured the rights to the Kaufman book for their company. Mosel recalled, “I was in the hotel room, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, when Alan and Bob got the rights. And the dears, they turned away from the telephone, and they said, ‘Will you write it?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ I hadn’t even read it! But to work with those two men, I would have dramatized the telephone book.”

Soon however, Mosel realized he had a real challenge on his hands:

It was a tough job, it really was. The movie was very successful, but it was very hard to do. It was an epistolary novel. It was all letters and notes in wastebaskets and in suggestion boxes and directives from the Board of Education and from the library. There was no straight narrative except in some letters that the young teacher wrote to her friend.

Well, this was very hard to pull into a viable screenplay. And it was Bob one day who said, “The main character in this movie is a building. It’s Public School Number 181, whatever it is, Calvin Coolidge High School.” He said, “We will open with a medium shot of the school, we will close with a medium shot of the school, and between we will never leave the school. We will go to the corner so that you can see the leading character in the background. But we’ll spend most of the picture inside and the school will talk, it will make noises. Bells will ring. Doors will slam. Windows will break. And that was the basis on which we did the movie. And it was a wonderful basis, it really was. And it shows in the movie, because the movie has a wholeness to it, which it wouldn’t have if it didn’t have that solid, hideous building, that you were forced to look at about every ten minutes.

It worked. Mosel’s screenplay puts Calvin Coolidge High School front and center from page one, and almost makes you forget that all of the action is confined to the school building and the mean streets surrounding it. Here are the first two pages of Mosel’s script, which set the scene:

But it wasn’t only the building that had to be established as a character — it was also the teachers and students who showed up at school every day. Kaufman’s eclectic novel was made up of written communication of every form (letters, memos, notes, diary entries, circulars, directives), but by design it didn’t include descriptions of people and settings beyond what could be gleaned from those writings. Mosel had to find a way to create characters and situations and form them into a storyline while still capturing the chaotic spirit of the book, which was infused with both comedy and pathos.

One way that he did this was by going to the source. In his oral history, Mosel said that he “had to spend a lot of time in ghetto schools in New York City, visiting and listening to kids, because we had 300 of them in the movie. I wrote all through the filming, because I would hear the kids say something and I would want to get it into the screenplay.” This willingness to express what kids are really saying and thinking, from their own point of view, closely mirrors what Bel Kaufman accomplished in her book, and shows why Tad Mosel was an inspired choice to write the screenplay for the film. His empathy for all of the characters — the teachers, the students, even the administrators — comes through on every page. This is especially true in the scenes where Sylvia Barrett struggles to make a connection with her students, both individually and in class, as well as in the painful love letter scene between the heartbroken Alice Blake and the arrogant Mr. Barringer.

Of course, Bel Kaufman’s book was first and foremost a critique of a system that puts paperwork and regulations over people, and the film needed to incorporate in a good number of the ridiculous edicts that Kaufman lampooned so expertly. Mosel doesn’t let Kaufman’s readers down in this department. The petite Sandy Dennis, who plays Sylvia Barrett, is buried in paper from the first moment she walks into the office and punches her time card, and Mosel makes sure that Sylvia and her fellow teachers are constantly besieged with forms, reports, applications, permission slips and other useless items that need to be filed with the harried school secretary. All of that detail pays off in Mosel’s satisfying final scene, when Sylvia tears up that resignation form and heads up the down staircase. In the end, things aren’t perfect — but maybe they’re getting better.

If you would like to spend some time reading Tad Mosel’s remarkable work, visit us at the Writers Guild Foundation Library. In addition to the screenplays for Up the Down Staircase and Dear Heart, our collection includes Mosel’s published teleplays, as well as scripts for three of his Playhouse 90 episodes. I also highly recommend taking a look at Mosel’s Archive of American Television interview.

READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES

On June 2, 2013, the WGA announced its list of 101 Best Written TV Shows as voted on by the Guild’s membership. On April 28, 2017, one of our amazing library patrons Christina Irion finished reading at least one script from every available show on the list. After giving her a moment to rest her eyes and brain, we asked Christina to tell us what she learned from the experience. In this post, she shares ten highlights, offering a glimpse into TV storytelling, network history and how to make exceptional use of your friendly Writers Guild Foundation Library.

 

TEN THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING THE 101 BEST WRITTEN SERIES

by Christina L. Irion

Every time I popped into the WGF library I noticed a list hanging on the wall by the front glass doors. With 101 titles, these television shows were voted the best-written series of all time. Seeking to broaden my knowledge and challenge myself—with zero awareness of the commitment I just made—I decided to read the entire “101 Best Written Series.”

Over countless hours (with encouragement from the librarians and forced coffee breaks), I tackled the list from 101 all the way down to number one. Reading the pilot, or the earliest materials I could find from each show, I also created my own nerdy chart to track each script. Below are the top 10 things I learned.

 

1.   Cha- Cha – Cha – Changes

The top 101 series are categorized by top-voted writing before June 2013. This meant that in one day I could read scripts with a wider age gap than Gloria and Jay on Modern Family. In reading scripts from different decades, I found it interesting to see how scripts and shows have changed over time.

From teleplays in the ’50s to HBO dramas in the late 2000s, I found discrepancies in the amount of dialogue and number of act breaks in the scripts. Specifically in comedies, I noticed a change over time that resulted in more act breaks per episode and a quicker pace.

For example, Family Ties (Multi-cam) and Modern Family (Single cam) are both ABC comedies set decades apart. Structurally they are very different. While Family Ties is broken into only 2 acts with about 3 scenes in each act, Modern Family’s pilot is broken into 4 acts and a tag with about 9 scenes in each act. As a control in this experiment, I also tested this structure-change with scripts from Friends, comparing scripts from Season 1 to Season 10. I noticed that while each Friends script is broken into two acts, there are more scenes in Season 10 verses Season 1.  

Going back to comparing Family Ties and Modern Family, there is a huge difference in scene length. In the Season 2 Family Ties episode “Not an Affair to Remember” the script is comprised of far more pages and dialogue per scene – usually about 7-10 pages of dialogue. Modern Family has a quicker pace with most long scenes lasting between 2-3 pages.

I think this shows the shift in the way people absorb media and possibly indicates the added time for commercial breaks around the story.

 

2.  Top Producers and Writers – Starting To Make That Web

One of the best things about reading the scripts was learning about key players in the history of television. I knew my favorite writers and executive producers from my top shows—Tina Fey, Michael Shur, Ricky Gervais—but the list allowed me to branch out and discover more. With each series, I kept digging. I learned about different producers and writers and gained an understanding of projects they previously worked on, their collaborators and their sensibilities.

For example, one of the most-represented writers on the list was James L. Brooks. He dominates the top 101 with three hit shows, two of which I knew, the third of which surprised me. I knew of him from hit comedies like Taxi and The Simpsons. I was surprised that he also topped the list for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I had never looked into his filmography in depth, but I quickly hopped onto IMDB and saw that his other credits ranged from The Tracey Ullman Show to, surprisingly, Terms of Endearment.  

As I read the top 101 list, my own list of favorite writers and producers grew. I began to understand a larger network of show creators and developed a web of their work.  If you want to be either a writer or development executive, the top 101 list and the WGF library can help you study the top influencers throughout TV history.

 

3.  Whoa, This Used To Be Like That?

A few of the top shows on the list have been on the air for decades. What is on screen today looked a lot different 25 years ago. Like looking at your mother’s old high school yearbook photos, I found it fascinating to read past scripts and compare them to the present-day version.

Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street, and The Muppets stand out the most with this phenomenon. Over decades, writers change, society shifts, and comedy transforms, so it is not surprising that formal writing style fluctuates because of this. I will say, though, that side by side – the comparison is jarring. For example, the older generation of Sesame Street seems like a slightly weird cousin to its current version.

Comparing a Sesame Street episode from the ’80s to the 2000s, there is an obvious change in how the segments are broken up and who is highlighted in those segments.  In the 80’s version, there were shorter segments and less dialogue (the font was MUCH larger) while the 2000’s version was comprised of long scenes with more emphasis on the celebrity guest. Perhaps Sesame Street made its programming longer to combat quick-paced programming that encourages shorter attention spans.

Comparing these scripts from different decades was an interesting way to see how shows can morph over time to better appeal to a current audience.

 

4.   Which Network Reigned Supreme?

One of the biggest draws for me to read the top 100 list was to track the shows and their networks/cable companies. If anyone is development-driven, reading and studying the top 101 shows is a great way to see what types of programming each network/cable channel is known for, which production companies/writers they have worked with, and how each show fits into overall brands and missions.   

It was no surprise that NBC, CBS, and ABC had the most top shows (they have been around the longest, to be fair), but their show genres differed. NBC’s best-written series consisted of large-cast comedies and procedurals like Cheers, 30 Rock, ER and Law & Order. CBS’s top shows tended to be variety shows surrounding comedic actors like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show and The Bob Newhart Show.  

Knowing the history of each network and cable outlet seems like an extremely helpful tool when shopping scripts and ideas. By doing research, a writer can show that their outline or script will fit well with what the cable/network strives for in their shows.

 

5.   “Young, Attractive Female..”

When reading the list, I tried to read mostly pilots. I wanted to get a good idea of how each show introduced its story. This meant reading hundreds of character introductions. One character introduction that became way too familiar was “[INSERT NAME] a young, attractive female”.

Repeatedly this was how background, secondary, and main female characters were introduced. While I saw this dissipate in the newer scripts, it was jarring to see how often appearance had to be added as a qualifier for women in these scripts. Not to say that “attractive male” wasn’t also seen, but there was a definitive, overall sense that the female characters had to also be “attractive” to be interesting and catch the eyes of the characters around them.

 

6.   New Found Favorites

The top 101 list has a LARGE variety of genres, formats, and styles and is a fantastic way to broaden one’s taste in scripts. I found gems I never thought I would enjoy. The list opened my eyes to new genres and shows I would not have read otherwise.

Northern Exposure, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Playhouse 90 were all fantastic shows that previously slipped under my radar or were set aside in favor of familiar shows and genres. Each show featured amazing writing that I look forward to sitting down and scrolling through again.

7.   Script To Screen – “That Seems…Different”

Only by reading material from the top 101 list did I notice that that the screen and script versions of certain shows could seem vastly different.

For example, on the page, the pilot for Twin Peaks seemed like a fast-paced mystery. When I finally watched the show, I was surprised that on screen it felt slower, more dramatic, and reminiscent of a soap opera.

It goes to show how much power a director (or maybe just David Lynch) has in carrying the script to the screen.

8.   “This Is The First Draft ?”

Because scripts go through many drafts from first pitch to pilot, characters names may change, there can be different exposition, even characters’ actions can be changed. Many series at the WGF library have at least two versions of the pilot available. For my favorite shows like The Office (U.S) and Game of Thrones, I read both versions and wow, they were different.

The first version of The Office (U.S) is very similar to its British predecessor, which makes lovable prankster, Jim, look like that creepy jerk at the party. In all honesty, first-pilot Jim wouldn’t have fans rooting for a Jim-Pam romance.

Game of Thrones was rewritten and reshot after the first filming of its pilot episode. The focus of the beginning is pretty different which should make any super-fan curious to see what the earlier draft looked like.

It was eye-opening to see first-hand how development notes can change the pivotal beginnings of our favorite shows. It makes one wonder how the series would look if it weren’t for those notes.

 

9.   Which Came First: Culture or the TV Show?

In the top 101 list, there are shows that take place in varied cities with characters of different races, religions, social statuses, sexuality, and identities. One of the most interesting parts about reading through the list was diving into a different world with every script. I think a lot of the shows were chosen because they had a social commentary to make within their 22 – 60 pages that was not explored in previous shows.

From The Wonder Years to Roots to The Wire, the series’ writers show their audience different viewpoints of history and also put a spotlight on characters and societies overlooked in mainstream pop culture.

For example, when Roots was released in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon hitting some of the highest Nielson ratings at the time.* The multiple night, mini-series was unexpected and families across the United States tuned in every night to see the story of Kunta Kinte and the generations after him. Roots was an example of a different take on Black television that unapologetically showed the harsh reality of American History. The onscreen portrayal of America’s brutal past in Alex Haley’s novel was a stark difference from the other African American sitcoms at the time. A Newsday Review article from 1977 praised Roots’s educational approach to black culture and ancestry by stating Roots goes deeper into explaining black family life than “What’s Happening.”

It really behooves any reader of this list to read some of these scripts and contemplate: “Did culture influence television or did television influence culture?”

 

10.   Off to the Races

Time to sound like every ’50s TV mom giving a life lesson when I say, “Like any other muscle, the brain also needs a bit of practice and exercise.” Whether you read scripts for a living now or want to in the future, reading this list in its entirety quickens reading speed and helps you gauge your reading time. Soon the mountain of scripts will seem a lot less daunting.

It became easier to read more scripts with each visit to the library. With thousands of pages to read, there’s not only speed to be gained but brainpower to be strengthened by taking on the Top 101 challenge.

Overall, reading the top list was beneficial in so many ways. I feel like I broadened my mind, became a better reader, and got to understand so much more about the industry I love. I would highly suggest reading down this list as a personal challenge to continue learning and growing.  

Whether you decide to tackle the list or read your favorite show, know one thing: the librarians know best. There are hundreds of episodes to choose from and it can be overwhelming if you don’t know what exactly you are looking for.

Javier, Hilary, Lauren, and the rest of the librarians are happy to share fan favorites as well as their own. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions because you can find some of your favorite scripts that way. I know that was true for me. 

This Week’s Script Cavalcade: Horton Foote on the Big Screen

Johnny Cash cited FRANKENSTEIN (1931) as one of his favorite films. Speaking of his empathy for the title character, he claimed to be fascinated by a man/monster “made up of bad parts but trying to do good.”

Not coincidentally, tales of men and women “made up of bad parts but trying to do good” run completely rampant through the lyrics and musical leitmotifs of roots and country music. From Johnny Cash to present-day artists like Kacey Musgraves or Chris Stapleton, the genre is filled to the brim with self-loathing average joes, small town loneliness and alienation, the idea of disappointing one’s mama, trying to burn out personal demons and pain through vices like whiskey and beer, then the quiet desire found in a tank of gas and speeding along down the road to move on.

Right now you might be thinking: I’m a screenwriter. This is a blog dedicated to film and TV writing. What on earth does this post have to do with me?

A quote often attributed to Hank Williams is that country music is simply “Three chords and the truth.” Could it be that film, TV or any other form of dramatic storytelling isn’t all that different? Just substitute the word “chords” for “acts.” It’s on this note, that I’d like to put forth a contention that hopefully doesn’t seem too outrageous.

If Johnny Cash can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in the movies, then screenwriters can be inspired by and draw on ideas presented in country and roots music. Of course, this can be achieved by pulling out Waylon Jennings, Staple Singers or Emmylou Harris records, listening to the lyrics, aching pedal steel solos and cyclical banjo breaks that conjure images of dirt roads and juke joints, but it can also be achieved by studying one of country music’s greatest screenwriters.

His name is Horton Foote. You might know of him as the two-time Oscar-winning writer of TENDER MERCIES (1983) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), but in this blogger’s mind, he’s actually a country musician who deals in sluglines instead of baselines.

Horton Foote, photo by William B. Winburn (Backstory 3: Interviews with Screenwriters from the 1960s by Pat McGilligan, University of California Press.)

Well, actually, he considered himself more of a playwright who occasionally wrote for TV and film.

Indeed, he was prolific in his work for the stage, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995). Perhaps it was in the theater, with its emphasis on cycles and revisiting certain themes again and again where Horton Foote developed the ideas and flourishes that would come to make his particular kind of storytelling so recognizable on screens big and small.

When one sees certain impressionistic paintings, one probably associates them with Monet… When I see certain quiet movies that put across the same pain and authenticity as a good country song, I think of Horton Foote.

The Trip to the Bountiful (1985), Screenplay by Horton Foote based on his play

Born in Wharton, Texas in 1916, Foote eventually settled in New York City, where he became a dramatist after studying method acting. Even though he wrote plays, TV and movies, like any great country/roots musician, he never shook his small-town, southern home and it became something he tried to explore and stay connected to through his writing. Home is a repeated theme throughout his work. Like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor or John Steinbeck, he tended to write about the same place in his stories, eliciting in his audience a sense of longing for the heart of Texas or Alabama – even in people who never visited those places. It’s a feeling similar to that which comes from hearing Merle Haggard or Dolly Parton.

“Foote weaves his melodrama into the plain cloth of everyday events,”

wrote New York Times Theatre Critic Ben Brantley in a review in 2010. His stories often follow damaged, rejected people looking to flee or redeem themselves from some misdoing, demon or detriment, then finding makeshift families and a sense of community to get through that dull sense of alienation that often goes hand-in-hand with small-town existence.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Screenplay by Horton Foote, Based on the novel by Harper Lee

Fascinated by what he called the “dailiness” of everyday life, his characters are gas station clerks, farmers or store owners – people who are meager of word, but overflowing with feeling and unspoken dreams and wants. He focuses on the scar and how the character tries to heal it rather than over-saturating us with the event that left it there. It’s not difficult to view his plays and films as the living, blood-fueled embodiment of the characters put forth in a Johnny Cash song – sutured together from bad parts and trying to be good.

Tender Mercies (1983), Written by Horton Foote

His plain cloth, personal but rural style of playwriting proved to be a natural fit for a new, burgeoning medium called “television” in the 1950s and 60s. Because of television’s smaller budgets and need to shoot quickly on sound stages, it was predicted that writers with scaled-back, character-based proclivities would meet with success – and that’s just what happened for Foote and his contemporaries like Paddy Chayefsky and Tad Mosel.

It’s compelling to think that the same seeds that influenced the storytelling in American roots music might – by way of writers like Horton Foote – have sailed their way into the genesis of American television and, later, American film… then later still into the gelatinous hybrid of forms that’s found on streaming platforms today. I think that, in some roundabout way, country music helped solidify what we view as tenets of any kind of great American writing.

See these tenets in action with UCLA Film & Television Archive’s screening series “Golden Age Television Writers on the Big Screen.” The little-seen, Foote-penned TOMORROW (1972) is showing Sunday, August 6th at 7pm at the Billy Wilder Theater. The series is co-presented by the Writers Guild Foundation. WGA members get free admission.

Tomorrow (dir. Joseph Anthony, 1972)

Until there exists a book or Screenwriting course based entirely in country and roots music, watching Robert Duvall as a soft-spoken farmer who takes in a young pregnant woman in Mississippi (based on a William Faulkner short story and Foote’s play of the same name) is the best place to experience exactly what I’m talking about.

Oh, and as always, stop by the WGF Library to read the newest additions to our catalog. This week we’ve added the script for summer’s most wonderful superhero flick WONDER WOMAN and the Netflix Original Series GLOW, unofficially making us the coolest non-circulating library in town!