Professor Firstdraft’s GOODTIME SCRIPTORIUM

Dispatches from the far reaches of the WGF.

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.

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.

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

They don’t.

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

Ummmmm, he pretty much just moves up the ladder.

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

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).