SCREENPLAY 101: THE LION IN WINTER

Guest blogger Greg Beal is the director of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

“I should have killed you years ago,” proclaims Henry, King of England.
“There’s no one peeking. Do it now,” responds Eleanor of Aquitaine, his long-estranged wife.

Renowned for its biting dialogue, THE LION IN WINTER (#71 on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays) captures the passion drawing its powerful royal couple together while pushing them forever apart. Adapted from his own play, James Goldman’s brilliant lines spill out of the mouths of Eleanor and Henry, ravishingly portrayed by Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, both Academy-nominated for their roles, with Hepburn winning her third Oscar (and her second in a row), famously tying with Barbra Streisand (in FUNNY GIRL) for the honor.

Taking place at Christmas in 1183, THE LION IN WINTER is also a story of politics and power, of three sons – Richard, Geoffrey and John – scheming to succeed their father, and of Alais, the king’s young mistress, who is betrothed to Richard. Not to mention that Eleanor was once Queen of France before that marriage was annulled, and the teenage King Phillip of France, her former husband’s son by another wife, has come to retrieve his half-sister Alais’ dowry, or see her married. (For those who don’t read history or Shakespeare, it’s GAME OF THRONES, sans dragons and multiple murders.)

While the narrative is historically significant – for son Richard is the Lionheart and son John would sign the Magna Carta in 1215 – the dialogue is what I remember and cherish. Here’s an exchange from Henry’s first meeting with Eleanor after having had her imprisoned for ten years for fomenting a revolt against his rule.

Eleanor: I don’t much like our children. (Rising, moving toward ALAIS) Only you. The child I raised but didn’t bear.
Alais: You never cared for me.
Eleanor: I did and do. Believe me, Henry’s bed is Henry’s province. He can people it with sheep for all I care. Which, one occasion, he has done.
Henry: Still that? When Rosamund’s been dead for seven years.
Eleanor: Two months and eighteen days. I never liked her much.
Henry: You count the days?
Eleanor: I made the numbers up.

James Goldman deservedly won an Oscar and a WGA Award for his screenplay (in advance of his brother Bill by a year – yes, sibling rivalries abound, even if benign in this case). THE LION IN WINTER was also nominated for Best Picture and won a third Oscar for John Barry’s score.

The selected pages 142-144 depict the final confrontation after his sons have gathered to kill Henry. The screenplay held in the WGF Library is a Second Draft, Revised 6th November (1967). The film went into production that month at Ardmore Studios in Ireland and premiered in the US on October 30, 1968.

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

SCREENPLAY 101: THELMA & LOUISE

THELMA AND LOUISE is widely regarded as the quintessential ‘chick flick.’ Personally, I hate that term, any other similar qualifier. A good story is a good story, and can be enjoyed by anyone with a desire to be entertained. And because it’s a good story, its script has landed at number 72 on the WGA’s list of top 101 scripts of all time.

Prior to writing this, I had never seen or read THELMA AND LOUISE, and honestly didn’t really know much about it. That is, besides the endless pop-culture references to its iconic ending, including the SIMPSONS episode “Marge on the Lam,” where Homer kisses the garbage.

So when given the choice to pick a script to showcase for this series, I chose THELMA AND LOUISE, written by Callie Khouri. I was curious to see why it was so highly regarded not only in the industry, but also in popular culture. As I began reading, I found myself quickly engrossed in an engaging tale about two ordinary women looking for an escape. An escape from what, you ask? Their craptacular lives.

This is especially true in the case of Thelma. When the story opens, we find her a bored, lonely and ignored housewife that is itching to break free of the mundane monotony of matrimony. The only problem is that her immature, two-timing husband, Darryl, has created a well-constructed prison for Thelma with her self-esteem the guard, and her own mind as the warden. Screenwriter Callie Khouri paints a great picture of her cell here, in the final production draft, dated June 5, 1990:

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While on the road, Thelma gets the adventure and excitement she wanted, but not in the way she expected. Soon, she and Louise find themselves on the run from the law after Louise dishes out some Old Testament style vengeance with a Dirty Harry-sized handgun.

Now panicked, the lawless ladies are holed up at a truck stop as they try to determine their next move. It’s at this moment that Thelma sneaks away to make a phone call under the guise of going to the restroom; that move showcases this script’s first stroke of brilliance. The payphone scene is a small one, but accomplishes a lot, and should be studied by every aspiring screenwriter as an example of how to do a lot with a little.

In this scene, we know that little ol’ Thelma realizes she’s in over her head. So by placing this phone call to Darryl back home, we can tell that she now yearns for the days of daytime TV and coupon cutting. In the hours since she left, she has discovered the world is a big, dangerous, and scary place. Now, all she wants is to return back to her ‘normal life.’ In this payphone booth, our hero is challenged to either go back home, or continue on into unfamiliar territory (a moment that would make Joseph Campbell grin). As the phone rings we get this series of shots:

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We, the audience, though these images, get a sense of what is going on in Thelma’s mind as the phone rings. She knows that as much as she may want to go back to her old life, there really wasn’t a life to go back to, anyway. When Thelma hangs up, we get the sense that she understands that there is no going back now, and as much as she may not like it, the only way to go, is forward with Louise. This then kicks us into Act II and drives the story to its dramatic conclusion.

Speaking of the final moments of the film, when doing some research, I found that the ending has been a point of contention between audiences and screenwriter, Callie Khouri. Many people think that because the ladies drive off the cliff, it means that the duo committed suicide, and thus, took the easy way out. While Khouri on the other hand, contends that our heroines aren’t dead, and got exactly what they wanted. She has also stated that the ending wasn’t meant to be literal, but rather symbolic of our heroes flying to freedom. I believe the confusion is due to the transition of the material from script and screen (after reading the script, I promptly watched the film).

Sadly, a lot of what I highlighted earlier was absent from the film. You really can’t blame the film’s director, Ridley Scott, for not focusing on the intricacies of the characters too much. This show marked the first time Scott stepped outside of his typical action genre where story (and ‘splosions) sells tickets. He was probably anxious to get to the adventure portion of the script and in doing so, left out many critical character elements of both Thelma and Louise that perhaps would’ve given the audience a better grasp of what our road warrior women wanted and needed as their T-Bird touches air.

If THELMA AND LOUISE is one of your favorite films, then I highly suggest you come on down to the free, quiet, free, temperature controlled, free, Writers Guild Foundation Library and request to read the screenplay from the friendly and beautiful staff.

After you read it, I guarantee that you’ll not only get more enjoyment from the movie as a whole, but you may also find the ending a bit more satisfying and root for the ferocious freedom-seekers as their frozen frame fades to black.

While you’re at the library, go on and cruise on down the hallway and stop in front of the big ‘ol photo of Callie Khouri and take a selfie. This will give you your own freeze frame moment that you can cherish like these wild women who were ahead of their time:

Sammy Sarzoza is the Director of Video Production for the LA Derby Dolls. His work can also be found at GeekyPheebs.com.

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

SCREENPLAY 101: AMADEUS

I watch AMADEUS – screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play, and number 73 on the list of the WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays – as a comedy. Which might make me a terrible person.

But it’s just so funny. For one thing, it attributes fart jokes to a historical icon. (“We are in the residence of the Fartsbishop of Salzburg!”)

But there’s also complex interplay between characters. Salieri’s childlike hatred of Mozart’s brilliance (“So that was he!… That giggling, dirty-minded creature I’d just seen…crawling on the floor…Mozart!”) and Mozart himself, existing in some kind of genius-infused, childish dream world (“Here everything goes backwards. People walk backwards – dance backwards – sing backwards – and talk backwards!”).

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The film’s flawlessly balanced grandiosity is just perfectly timed for laughs.

Shaffer’s original premise is especially effective – telling the story of Mozart’s decent into madness from the perspective of his biggest, albeit covert, rival, eventually doomed to madness himself.

It’s like the ultimate straight-man comedy. Cancel their flight home for Thanksgiving and they’d be Steve Martin and John Candy. OK, that might not be the most apt comparison. But you can’t tell me you wouldn’t want to see Salieri and Mozart try to share a small motel room bed.

I’ve watched this force of a film exactly twice now – once in college and then again recently for this post. Thinking back now it’s amazing how similarly I reacted to this film at vastly different times in my life. Both times this impressive eight-time Academy Award winner hit me as a totally complete film – not missing a beat, laugh or twisted, poignant moment.

My theory is that, in this case, it all starts with the tone. Delving into the copy of the script we have here in the library, the 1982 final draft, is a study of pacing and balance.

Fittingly to its content, Amadeus masters tone in a way that is perfect and rare. Its completeness comes from the cohesive and overarching feeling of madness sustained and driven by each and every character.

It is delightful and terrifying at the same time. Like the two-faced mask Mozart’s father (and later more sinisterly Salieri) wears, the script’s tone hangs on a double-edged blade of light and dark, comedy and tragedy. All that is beautiful is hardened. All that is funny sours.

The straight man not only points to the absurdity of his comic foil but highlights his own tragic flaw.

“Do you want to rest a bit?” Mozart, very near death, says to Salieri as he composes, and Salieri transcribes, in a fit of creative frenzy that helps him to his grave.

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Scenes like this speak to me from one of the darkest places of the human spirit. Yet somehow it’s silly. Somehow the absurdity of this line in the context of reversal is strategically and manically lighthearted.

And that laugh. Let’s not forget about Mozart’s laugh. An eerie, indulgent and absurd laugh loosed by Mozart into his unending parties and dark nights.

I was particularly interested to know if Mozart’s insane, Salieri-tormenting giggle was written into the script or strictly an element of Tom Hulce’s brilliant performance. It turns out to be a combination of both – written into the script as a “high-pitched giggle” and then performed to the height of compete absurdity.

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Amadeus is simply a perfectly balanced film – all the more effective and poignant considering it is about two extremely unbalanced individuals.

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

SCREENPLAY 101: BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

I had this hilarious gag planned for the BEING JOHN MALKOVICH post in our series detailing the WGA’s 101 greatest screenplays. I had written a whole post that consisted entirely of the word “Malkovich,” over and over again, complete with punctuation, italics and other indications that I was writing in a language that consisted entirely of the word “Malkovich.”

But alas, that was not to be! Some snag in the code basically made the word “Malkovich” appear all over the page, as though our website were being taken over by some kind of virus – malkovich.worm.badtrans.2048 or something. Here’s what it looked like:

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Since it’s Christmas Eve and I don’t exactly have time to poke through the entire back end of our website trying to find the problem, I’ll just give you the alternate opening sequence from an earlier, undated draft in our collection, and wish you a happy holiday.

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BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is written by Charlie Kaufman and is number 74 on the list of the WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays.

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

SCREENPLAY 101: HIGH NOON

Here’s a fun fact about HIGH NOON: U.S. Presidents love it.

Eisenhower screened it three times. Clinton screened it too, and recommended it to George W. Bush, who in turn gifted Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi with one of the film’s original posters. (Bush was also reportedly a fan of the AUSTIN POWERS movies, and was known around the White House for his Dr. Evil impression, but that’s neither here nor there).

It makes sense, if you think about it. Its one-righteous-man-against-the-world stance is applicable to just about any spot on the political spectrum; no matter what your issue is, it’s easy to find some inspiration in Gary Cooper’s actions throughout the film. And you don’t have to be Doris Kearns Goodwin to know that the Oval Office can be a pretty lonely place.

But what’s really cool about HIGH NOON – screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on the short story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham, and number 75 on the WGA’s list of the 101 greatest screenplays of all time – is that Cooper’s character, Will Kane, is clearly terrified the entire time. People tend to remember Will as the strong, silent type – it feels like Tony Soprano mentions this about six times per season in THE SOPRANOS – but both the script and Cooper’s performance make it pretty clear that Will is only keeping it together through sheer force of will.

But the reason Kane is a hero – and a political inspiration to anyone who’s ever, say, looked down the barrel of a recalcitrant Congress – is because he faces the danger head-on without considering the consequences. But that’s not all! He’s got logic on his side, as we see on page 19. Backing down from Frank Miller just doesn’t make sense.

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Plus, hey! He’ll have his whole running crew with him! Surely they’ll have his back!

But then, of course, when he goes to rally the troops in a later scene…

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(Note: Miller is referred to as Mitchell in this early draft.)

You can almost hear the sad horns from The Price Is Right as the town abandons Kane right there in the church. (You might even suspect Foreman and co-producer Stanley Kramer are making a statement about religion by setting this scene in a church. But let’s not get into that right now.)

And one by one, Kane’s compatriots abandon him. His friends. His deputy. Even people who promised their help earlier in the script.

And in a scene on page 91 that didn’t make it into the final movie, Kane actually contemplates suicide:

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…or even attempts it, based on your interpretation of the scene. Did he know the safety catch was on? Will Kane doesn’t seem like a guy who would fire his gun without releasing the safety. On the other hand, he’s clearly shaken by the ordeal he’s about to face: One lawman against four bandits, one of whom is played by Lee Van Cleef. Those odds aren’t good. You could hardly blame him for wanting to take the easy way out.

(Again, there’s probably some symbolic subtext here: Foreman was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee when he was writing the script. That would make anyone feel alone, terrified, and pessimistic about the future.)

That’s why HIGH NOON is a great movie, really. Our cinematic heroes are at their most relatable when they’re in over their head and they know it: Han Solo’s terror as he unknowingly chases two stormtroopers into a hangar full of more stormtroopers. The look that crosses Indiana Jones’s face as he reaches for a gun that isn’t there. Black Widow’s “I don’t see how that’s a party” line as Iron Man leads a giant armored space eel right to her. That’s how we’d feel, right?

Personally, that’s why I’d love to see a version of HIGH NOON with that suicide scene. I like a Will Kane who’s scared stiff. I like a Will Kane who tests out what it might be like to end his own life, rather than letting a bunch of hooligans end it for him (possibly using a much more gruesome methodology). I like a Will Kane who walks right up to the edge of the cliff before turning around to face his pursuers, rather than jump off. Don’t get me wrong – in the final film, he sweats profusely as he watches the clock and makes out his will. There’s no question he’s scared. But there’s scared, and then there’s gun-in-your-mouth scared, and coming back from one isn’t like coming back from the other.

Either way: No wonder presidents want to be like this guy.

The pages cited in this post are from an undated draft, but we also have a draft from August 24, 1951. Both drafts feature the “suicide” scene.

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

SCREENPLAY 101: RAGING BULL

Boxing movies are a lot like submarine movies or zombie movies – no matter how good they are, they tend to fall into the same sorts of patterns. Mardik Martin knew that when he took on the task of co-writing the script for RAGING BULL (screenplay by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, based on the book by Jake La Motta with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage), number 76 on the list of the WGA’s 101 best screenplays.

Martin, a longtime confederate of BULL director Martin Scorcese, was reluctant to take on the script, partly because he didn’t want to make a typical boxing movie. “The trouble with RAGING BULL is that the damn thing has been done a hundred times,” he says in the excellent Peter Biskind book EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS (available in our library). “A fighter who has trouble with his brother and wife, and the mob is after him. I don’t want to do another brother-fighter story because that was done in CHAMPION. And ROCKY is out, same company. Same producers!”

Oh, and Martin had no interest in boxing or La Motta, and didn’t like the book the movie is based on. “I think this book is full of shit,” he says in Biskind’s book. “It’s made-up stuff, looks like a PR job.” Most historians and cinephiles seem to agree that BULL was the brainchild and passion project of star Robert De Niro anyway, so much so that during preproduction he naturally took to boxing.

Whatever Martin thought, the final product is compelling, and – for my money at least – the brotherhood angle is what really sells the story. Joey La Motta, played beautifully by then-newcomer Joe Pesci, is consumed with maintaining the delicate balance of his brother’s fragile psyche and the mob goons pulling his strings, which is a lot like trying to balance a house of cards on the San Andreas Fault. In a windstorm. As Earth crashes into the sun.

The very first thing Joey tries to do is appeal to Jake with money, right on page 2:

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The money motivates Jake in the moment, but as we come to see, it’s not really what’s deep in Jake’s heart.

Over the next few pages, we see Joey dicker with mobster Salvy behind the scenes, speaking on Jake’s behalf and struggling with that delicate balance:

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Later in the film, Joey and Salvy come to blows when Joey finds that Salvy very likely has designs on Jake’s wife Vickie; knowing the mad, irrational jealousy that constantly swarms Jake’s head, he knows he has to put out this fire before it starts.

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Oh, and by the way, even a stopped clock is right twice a day; Jake wasn’t exactly wrong to be jealous of Salvy, as we see earlier in the script (apologies for the quality of our scan here):

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But of course, Joey’s attempt to protect Jake from the big bad world is precisely what starts the chaos that ends the two brothers’ relationship.

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In the end, the movie about a boxer having trouble with his brother and his wife ended up being a profound fall-from-grace story, much like ON THE WATERFRONT (which is referenced in the final pages of the script). Along with uncredited partners Scorcese and Robert De Niro (according to David Thompson’s SCORCESE ON SCORCESE), Martin and Schrader imbued the script with the subtlety and realism common to 70s cinema (though this movie is from 1980).

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

SCREENPLAY 101: ADAPTATION

Keri Marken is an MLIS candidate at UCLA, and a Writers Guild Foundation archival intern.

With three scripts on the WGA’s list of 101 Greatest Screenplays, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman appears to have this writing thing down pat. Kaufman has garnered critical acclaim for crafting some of the most original and imaginative storylines, centered on some of the most interesting and awkwardly funny characters. However, Kaufman’s screenplay, ADAPTATION, based on the book “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean, is unique in that the central character happens to be Charlie Kaufman himself.

Positioned at number 77 on WGA’s list, ADAPTATION brings two storylines together—one is Kaufman’s struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s book for the screen, while the other focuses on the actual plot and characters of the book itself. Kaufman’s writer’s block is a main element in the story, which provides the audience with a glimpse into the writer’s world…one that is fraught with impending deadlines, a lack of motivation, and general feelings of inferiority.

In order to illustrate his struggle, Kaufman employs a fictitious twin brother, Donald, who becomes a constant source of annoyance for Charlie due to his seemingly effortless attempt to launch a screenwriting career. Donald’s inexperience, cliché story ideas, and general naivety contribute to Charlie’s growing neurosis. Kaufman’s impatience is evident in the pages below, when Donald suggests the benefits of attending a screenwriting seminar. Yet, even though Donald represents the frustration that often accompanies the writing process, he is still an integral part of the finished product and as such, earns his own writing credit in this collaborative effort.

Here are four pages from our April 2, 2001 draft:

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

Screenplay 101: ROCKY

Where does a character gather the resilience and perseverance that will allow him to fight the odds and come out ahead at the conclusion of a story?  Well, in the case of ROCKY, written by Sylvester Stallone and number 78 on the WGA’s list of the 101 all-time greatest screenplays, who knows? And more importantly, who cares?

One reason why this film manages to end in such a high note at the end – despite the fact that Rocky doesn’t win the fight – is because for almost the entire film, Rocky gets dumped on, over and over and over. And that builds sympathy for him. Rocky has a terrible existence. He’s poor, nobody respects him, the aging gym trainer tells him he’s no good, and he gets called a bum multiple times. On top of all that, he really is too old to get taken seriously as a contender.

And yet, through all this, Rocky still manages to defy the odds. But he doesn’t do it in a determination no-holds-barred I’m-gonna-prove-it-type-to-them type of way (except in the scene included here, in which Rocky tells Adrian that fighting Apollo means he will be able to tell the world that he isn’t a bum). Instead, he does so with genuine optimism. His character simply bounces back from every insult and setback, period. And we’re not even sure why that is. We don’t know anything about his past or childhood that might give us an insight as to why he must succeed, except for that one photograph he looks at of himself as kid. He is simply a guy who just sort of seems to forge ahead no matter what comes at him. And in that sense, he is really a fresh protagonist.

Thou they’re labeled individually with earlier dates, the pages here are from a January 7, 1976 draft.

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

Screenplay 101: THE PRODUCERS

Combine a sleazy Broadway producer taking advantage of little old ladies with one extremely nervous accountant cajoled into performing some “creative accounting.” Mix in a hippie actor named Lorenzo St. Du Bois – or LSD – and a fanatic former Nazi who loves Hitler with all his heart. Blend it all up into a Broadway musical praising the Third Reich. It’s sure to flop, at least if Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) have anything to do with it.

#79 on the WGA’s list of the 101 best screenplays is the 1968 film THE PRODUCERS, written and directed by Mel Brooks. This was Brooks’ directorial debut; he won an Oscar as well as WGA Award for best screenplay.

Max and Leo spend the film scheming to produce the worst musical ever made, intending to keep all the investors’ money. There is no way they can fail with a musical written as a love letter to Adolf Hitler. They don’t count on the audience thinking it’s a farce and loving the show!

Brooks’ eccentric characters and the absurd situations are so far over the top that they almost seem plausible. The pages below, from a 1967 draft, show our producers sucking up to the musical’s writer Franz Liebkind to get into business with him. They involve the unwitting and unhinged Liebkind in their plan, even as Franz reveals his deep admiration for Hitler in a monologue, ending with the declaration that Hitler could “dance the pants off Churchill!” Brooks boldly goes all out on every joke. While the risk of our two titular producers resulted only in jail sentences, the risk Brooks took in making fun of Hitler and the Nazis just 23 years after WWII paid off for him in spades. Bialystock and Bloom’s loss was certainly our gain.

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

Screenplay 101: WITNESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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