Professor Firstdraft’s GOODTIME SCRIPTORIUM

Dispatches from the far reaches of the WGF.

Screenplay 101: WITNESS

by

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.

Witness_64 Witness_65 Witness_66 Witness_67

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).