Screenplay 101: BEING THERE

Written by Jerzy Kosinski and inspired by his novella of the same name, BEING THERE wandered into theaters in 1979 and stands at #81 on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays. Directed by Hal Ashby, the film is a rare beast indeed – a beautifully written, deceptively deep, wildly unique comedy which shouldn’t work at all. But does. Brilliantly.

(You might be thinking, “Yeah, yeah. I know. Chance the gardener doesn’t arc. In fact, he’s practically the poster boy for the Holy Fool archetype.” True, but read on. What we’re looking at is much more fundamental.)

Indulge me for a minute. Pretend you’re a producer. I just wrote BEING THERE and have wheedled my way into your office to pitch it.

ME
It’s a comedy, right? About this guy. Not the brightest guy. I mean, he’s got a low IQ, so low it’s like he’s hardly there. All he does is watch TV. So, when he runs into people, he sorta agrees with whatever they just said. He ends up falling in with these rich, powerful folks and they LOVE him, right? They love him because he tells them exactly what they want to hear, which is just a confirmation of what they think about the world in the first place. And because they love him, he ends up moving up the ladder.

YOU
Okay. Great. So when do they find out what this guy really is?

ME
They don’t.

YOU
Whaddya mean they don’t? If they don’t find out, things can’t get cooking! How else are things going to get cooking?!?

ME
Ummmmm, he pretty much just moves up the ladder.

YOU
What about conflict? Twists? Reversals? You gotta have twists and reversals!

ME
Yeah, um, those aren’t so much in this.

You see the problem, don’t you? The danger of the repeat beat. The one-trick pony. The dead horse that gets kicked until… Well, you get the idea. The first time Chance is mistaken for a brilliant man gets a laugh. So does the second. But what about the sixth or the sixteenth?

The repeat beat is something all screenwriters have to watch out for, but when it’s woven into the fabric of the concept itself, you have to pull a Jerzy K. Only by knowing where the pitfalls are can you avoid them. Kosinski does this so well, the repeat beat isn’t even an issue.

In this case, the question driving the script isn’t “What will Chance do next?” Since Chance has no real volition, that’s a moot point.

The question driving the script is, “How far is this going to go?” Kosinski pulls this off by carefully stacking the scenes, starting with the smallest case of mistaken identity (a group of street hooligans assume Chance is a messenger) and going right up to the President of the United States and top federal agents butting heads over whether Chance is ex-CIA or former FBI.

Knowing “How far?” is the question making us turn pages, Kosinski gets right up to the line… then steps over it.

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What’s the one thing you think Chance would need a little volition to do?

Sex, of course!

This is arguably the climax of the film as well as its most memorable scene. The follow-up conversation between Eve and Chance is worth a closer look, too. In The 3rd Act (a how-to gem you can find at the WGF library) Drew Yanno calls this type of scene a bridge scene.

Though rarely used, bridge scenes are needed when a character’s actions require a bit of explaining late in the game, effectively bridging the climax to the denouement. In this case, if you wonder why Eve would keep Chance around after a night like that (and who wouldn’t wonder, really?) Eve tells you herself, in passionate dialogue that sums up the entire point of the story: in a self-absorbed society, people feel most “seen” when they’re around people who don’t actually see them at all.

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: REAR WINDOW

This post has some spoilers in it. So tread lightly.

We all have those specific moments that we love – moments that are common to all movies. The meet cute. The turning point. The jump scare. The lull before the storm. The death rattle.

For me, it’s that “oh ****” moment.

It’s hard to describe, exactly, but the “oh ****” moment is so named because it’s that moment that makes you say, out loud, oh ****. Or, if it’s a really good movie, ohhh **************. You know it: The part in GREMLINS when Lynn Peltzer enters the kitchen to find one of the monsters eating Christmas cookies with its back to her. The part in SEVEN where we realize what’s in the box just before Brad Pitt does. The part in THE LADY VANISHES when Gilbert and Iris sit down beneath the window that  Miss Froy had written her name on earlier in the film. The part where you put your hand to your mouth and point at the screen.

And speaking of Hitchcock… here’s number 83 on the list of the WGA’s 101 best screenplays of all time: REAR WINDOW. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich.

REAR WINDOW has the ultimate “oh ****” moment on page 146. We’ve been watching, from Jeff’s vantage point, Lisa rifling through Torvald’s apartment, looking for evidence. We (along with Jeff) watch helplessly as Torvald arrives home to find Lisa there. Then, he slowly looks up – right into Jeff’s camera lens.

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The moment is especially powerful because we’re just as trapped as Jeff (played by James Stewart in what might be his best role), as Roger Ebert, in his book THE GREAT MOVIES II, notes:

The hero of… REAR WINDOW is trapped in a wheelchair, and we’re trapped, too – trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession…. Here’s a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience – look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.

The reason the film works so well is because Jeff observes the world through the lens of a camera, just as the people watching him do. Such an audience-identification perspective is rightly considered a triumph of filmmaking – but most people might not guess that the screenplay itself is written through the lens of a camera, where Hayes notes that Thorvald’s “head slowly turns, and he looks right up – directly into the lens.” Not “directly at us” or “directly at Jeff” – he’s looking into a camera. Hayes and Hitch had a firm handle on their theme from square one.

Here’s an interview with Hayes on working with Hitchcock, if you’d like to learn more. (Beware – the sound in the video starts off loud and then drops pretty precipitously.)

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: COOL HAND LUKE

 Francesca Baird is the UCLA MIAS intern in the WGF Archive.

The titular character of COOL HAND LUKE is a man of few words. As written in the screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson (based on Pearce’s novel of the same name) Luke stoically goes about his business, inspiring his fellow prisoners through his actions more than his words. In the early scenes of the film, Luke remains a mystery: an intelligent, charismatic war hero who one day decided to get drunk and destroy municipal property, leading to his arrest. There’s little indication as to why Luke is the way he is until his invalid mother, Arletta, rolls up in the back of a truck for Visiting Day at the prison.

ARLETTA
You think life is some kind of ocean voyage and you start
out with buntin’ and hollerin’ and high hopes, but the
damn ship goes down before you ever reach the other side.

This bit of dialogue, taken from a draft dated 9/29/66, doesn’t exist in the film. It doesn’t need to, lovely as it is, because Arletta manages to communicate the same sentiment to Luke in much simpler terms. This graceful brevity is one of many reasons that COOL HAND LUKE is number 82 on WGA’s List of 101 Greatest Screenplays. It’s amazing how much back-story Pearce and Pierson manage to fit into this brief scene between Luke and his mother. The viewer learns about Luke’s childhood, the absence of his father, and his mother’s ambivalent feelings toward Luke and his brother, John. What could have been overwrought is instead written in a way that’s both moving and understated, revealing all the viewer needs to know about the man seen cutting the heads off of parking meters at the start of the film. These 5 pages of the draft expose the conflict in Luke, a man who simultaneously feels the need to follow his mother’s way of life-“free and aboveboard”- but also the burden of expectation that comes with that mother’s love.

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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 PRINCESS BRIDE

“And what is starting now is one of the two greatest swordfights in modern movies (the other one happens later on) and right from the beginning it looks different — none of that swords crossing ‘en garde’ garbage…”

This preamble to the classic duel between “The Man in Black” and the Spaniard Inigo Montoya is but one of many amusing notes in William Goldman’s November 1979 draft of THE PRINCESS BRIDE (#84 of the WGA’s 101 Best). The fact that the above was restated nearly verbatim by director Rob Reiner during a live-commentary screening of the film at the Academy last August speaks to the quality of the 1987 film’s source material.

Goldman’s screenplay was based on his own novel (published in 1973), so it’s not surprising that it reads like one. What’s truly remarkable is how closely the banter that charms us onscreen resembles that found in his 1979 script adaptation. Some of the most memorable dialogue arises as “The Man in Black” (our hero Westley) faces off against the trio of Inigo (sword), Fezzik (strength), and Vizzini (brains). While it was extremely tough to choose one of these contests to feature here, the “battle of wits” wherein two glasses of wine, some poison, and a hot-headed Sicilian mastermind stand between Westley and his one true love wins this round… 
 
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PrincessBride_46 PrincessBride_47 To its benefit (and ours), the scene plays out nearly word-for-word in the film. Remember — never get involved in a land war in Asia. 

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: LA GRANDE ILLUSION

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

How’s this for a miracle? During World War II, the negative of LA GRANDE ILLUSION (written by Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak, number 85 of the WGA’s List of 101 Greatest Screenplays) was destroyed in an allied bombing raid of Paris. Or so it was thought. It turned out the Nazis had stolen the negative of the film Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1,” along with hundreds of others, and moved them to Berlin. Safe in the Reichsfilmarchiv vaults, the French films survived the war (though they did detour to Moscow first, but that’s another story).

The pages excerpted below depict the film’s centerpiece scene, a song-and-dance extravaganza in drag in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Amidst the gleeful insanity, Jean Gabin’s Maréchal bursts onto the stage to announce that the French army has retaken Douaument and, to the chagrin of the German guards, the French and British prisoners leap to their feet to sing “La Marseillaise.” The exquisite moment, later reprised in CASABLANCA, is captured by Renoir’s floating camera as it sweeps past face after face of the joyous allied airmen.

In addition to its standing as one of greatest anti-war films (and as the first foreign film to be Academy nominated for Best Picture), LA GRANDE ILLUSION is also the story of humanity and understanding, friendship and sacrifice, love and loss, and class and racism.  The treatment of the Jewish officer Rosenthal (played by Marcel Dalio) prefigured what was soon to escalate in Nazi Germany.

Charles Spaak’s treatment for LA GRANDE ILLUSION (reprinted in Andre Bazin’s Renoir) includes one last illusion:  as they escape to Switzerland, the former mechanic Maréchal and the nouveau riche Rosenthal (Dolette in the treatment) agree to meet for dinner at Maxim’s in Paris after the war. The final, never filmed shot was to be of an empty table at Maxim’s, marked “Reserved,” for these two men, such able friends during captivity and escape, apparently couldn’t overcome the strictures of class and race to meet again.


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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: HAROLD AND MAUDE

Released in 1971, HAROLD AND MAUDE originated from, of all places, writer Colin Higgins’ masters thesis at UCLA.  Its dark humor and unique exploration of the meaning of life are still moving and relevant, even after 40 years.  Join us as we look at #86 on the WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays.

The relationship between 20-year-old Harold and 80-year-old Maude is probably one of the most unusual romances ever seen onscreen.  Harold has no direction in life, sees a therapist, attends funerals for fun, and has performed seventeen fake “suicides” by the time we meet him.  Having had enough, his mother arranges dates for him throughout the film – but the only woman who catches his eye is the vivacious and optimistic (not to mention elderly) Maude.  Beyond their common interest in funerals, Maude brings some spontaneity and laughter into Harold’s life – she steals cars, sits nude for a sculptor, evades a cop and appreciates the tiniest differences from one flower to the next.

In these four pages from a May 1970 draft, Maude speaks beautifully about the grandness of life and we see Harold learning to loosen up.  Indicating their growing intimacy, Harold holds Maude’s hand and kisses it.  He notices a number tattooed on her skin, alluding to her past as a Nazi prisoner.  In this short and tender moment, we feel the depth of Maude’s history and begin to understand the reasons for her unconventional behavior, which makes the rest of the film that much more moving.

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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: FIELD OF DREAMS

Were you the kid always picked last for sports teams? The one who groans when the suggestion of playing a friendly game of basketball or baseball arises? If that’s you, don’t let the baseball theme deter you from watching number 88 on WGA’s List of 101 Greatest Screenplays: FIELD OF DREAMS.

FIELD OF DREAMS, screenplay by Phil Alden Robinson, is an adaptation of the book SHOELESS JOE by W.P. Kinsella that delves into the historical 1920 Black Sox Scandal wherein the Cincinnati Red Sox were accused of intentionally losing the World Series in exchange for money.

But this history is merely back-story pivoting forward a beautiful, cathartic story about second chances and parental relationships long gone.

In these pages dated Sept. 8, 1987 we see Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella spouting something along the lines of ‘I-hear-voices-in-my-head’. But don’t worry; it’s not that kind of movie. The voice say ‘If you build it, he will come’, which becomes the message that carries us through Ray’s transformation.

And here we can feel that switch inside Ray where he begins to accept those words, solidifying themselves as more than just maddening mumbles coming from some unknown origin. Just listen to this: This is serious. Ray shakes his head and repeats the words to himself… And he thinks about these words…

This is no longer skepticism. This is a realization.

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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: SIDEWAYS

It seems like fairly common knowledge that one of the main elements for a successful story is to create sympathy for your main character.  Sympathy connects the audience to the main character; thus we end up rooting for them.

In SIDEWAYS – Screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett, and number 90 on the WGA101 list – the sympathy for the main character is built in a unique and striking way.  This scene appears at page 18 in the script, and up to this point, Miles, our protagonist, has proven to be irresponsible (he didn’t move his car for the construction workers even though he was asked to), selfish (he leaves a message for his friend telling him he is on his way to pick him up yet he still takes his time to get ready and even stops for coffee), and arrogant (he cuts his friend down for not knowing much about wine).

And then, Miles steals money from his elderly mother –  on the eve of her birthday, no less.  At this point, we should hate this character.  But then, something interesting happens within this sequence, and we are hit with an emotionally heart-wrenching moment.

The short montage of the photos on Miles’ mother’s dresser, which guide us through Miles’ early promise (promise which ultimately led to failure), immediately gives the character the permission to be all of those nasty things – self-centered, arrogant, etc. – and the sympathy meter quickly jumps from idle to full throttle. Like magic, we suddenly care for this guy.

We invite you to revisit this scene in the script, shown here in our undated draft – a scene that most people who have seen SIDEWAYS might not even remember – and try, just try, not shed a tear as you read.

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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 VERDICT

Inciting Incident 101 – We all know the term – it’s that certain plot point that occurs early on in the story which changes the trajectory for the main character. In other words, it’s what gets the story going.

In this scene from THE VERDICT (Screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by Barry Reed, and #91 on the WGA 101 list), Mickey confronts Frank Galvin (in the script you’ll notice his name is Joe Galvin) about his drinking, and tells him that he’s through looking out for him. This situation forces Frank to make a choice to either stop drinking and work on the legal case that Mickey brought to him, or keep drinking and continue on his downhill spiral. And even though it might be easier for a severe alcoholic to simply continue drinking, this latter choice would end the sole remaining friendship Frank has left.

This scene is also a great example of “raising the stakes”, and it’s done with just one word change. Note how in the script Mickey says “I get this people to trust you – they’re coming here tomorrow by the way”, but in the final film, the word tomorrow is changed to noon, which raises the stakes for Frank because it is now late morning and he has to pick up his office, which he just trashed, and get it ready for the client, who is due in a matter of hours, instead of the next day.

Finally, the dialogue in this Nov. 23, 1983 draft serves as only a blueprint for the final film. If you watch the movie, you may note the dialogue was refined.  It just sounds better. This could either be that this was earlier draft of the script, or it could be a credit to the two great actors in the scene.

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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: PSYCHO

I was tempted to post these pages with no commentary – partly because it’s the shower scene from PSYCHO – which really requires no introduction – and partly because I’m terribly, terribly lazy.

But good sense won out, and here we are at number 92 on the list: PSYCHO. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.

We’ve all read screenplays that function as little more than instruction manuals for directors and actors. Those are the ones we tend to put down after the first few pages. PSYCHO is the diametric opposite of that: A script that not only truly works as literature, but pierces its way into the reader’s brain on a purely visceral level. Some scripts you read and appreciate; PSYCHO is just a good read.

And with all due respect to Hitch, the iconography of the shower scene in the finished film is rivaled by the deeply terrifying way it appears on the page. I dare you to read this at 2:30am, away from all the comfort of your TVs and tablets and phone screens, when everyone else has gone to bed, and not freak out just a little.

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A woman, her face contorted with madness, her head wild with hair, as if she were wearing a fright-wig. I’m so jaded by decades of horror movies that I root for the Blair Witch, and reading those words pretty much ensures I won’t get any sleep tonight. I’ll be tucking the covers under my feet, too.

Oh, and here’s a nice postscript: Our archive also has the Olympia typewriter that Bloch used to write the original novel. It weighs about a thousand pounds. Here it is:

Bloch Typewriter in archive

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).