Thursday, August 27, 2009

It must have been awkward

I finished reading "Screenplay". As Field suggests, I copied 10 pages of a script ("There's something about Mary"), as an exercise to help me get used to writing in proper screenplay form. I think I'll do it more than once. It's not only helpful, it's also fun. I enjoy technical exercises. It's much easier to copy a few pages of script than to write biographies for my leading characters. The thing is, I know how the characters behave today, but I'm not sure how I should go about inventing their history, inventing major events in their childhood etc.

As I'm writing this, I suddenly realize that the key for my characters' past is their parents. I mean, their parents also star in the movie, so I already know what kind of people their parents are. So what I should do, given the leading characters' behavior and their parents' characteristics, is imagine what kind of (funny) situations could have happened between them while they were growing up. So hopefully this will get me somewhere. And if this doesn't help, maybe going over awkwardfamilyphotos will serve as inspiration:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lara Stone vs. Liv Ullmann: The eyebrows effect

I was watching "Scenes from a marriage" (Ingmar Bergman, 1973) a while ago, and during its 167 minutes I kept thinking that Liv Ullmann reminds me of Lara Stone – or should I say vice versa. There's a prominent vulnerability in Liv Ullmann's eyes and eyebrows combination, that sometimes makes it seem like she's about to cry even when she's not. Lara Stone's bleached eyebrows create a similar effect. Anyway, Lara Stone has just gone brunette for Vogue Paris, so this Liv/Lara adventure is over, at least for now.

Here's Liv Ullmann:

Here's Lara Stone:

And here's Lara Stone as a bruntte:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Home is where the road is

Following John Hughes' death, I decided to watch "Planes, trains and automobiles" (1987) for the first time. Though the movie's strong 80's vibe holds it from being a timeless piece, I did enjoy it. I especially enjoyed:

- Steve Martin and John Candy

- The opening scene, in which Page (Steve Martin) sits in an office meeting, anxious to leave so he can catch his plane, while his boss takes his time to conclude the meeting. This scene has almost no dialogue, mainly face gestures, and it's remarkably funny.

- The bromance atmosphere, which is so dominant in comedies nowadays. When Page and Dell find themselves sharing a hotel room (and a bed) for the night, they keep making sure there's nothing gay about it. The climax is the moment when they wake up in each other's arms, and jump out of bed, terrified (watch video below). Of course today it's ok for guys to say "I love you" in comedies ("Wedding crashers", "Superbad", "I love you, man").

- The moment when Page understands that Del (John Candy) has nowhere to go to for Thanksgiving. After he hated him throughout the entire movie, you really get the feeling that now he loves him. And in terms of transformations, it's nice that the film offers a minor change, not drastic. Page is not a whole new person when the movie ends, but he did learn to enjoy the presence of someone different, and to accept that things don’t always go as planned.

A day after watching "Planes", "Something Wild" (Jonathan Demme, 1986) was on TV, and I sat down and watched it. I remembered watching it as a young girl, and had a vague recollection of what it was about. I remembered the sex scene at the beginning (the bob haircut and the handcuffs are too iconic to forget). I also remembered the scene where Lulu (Melanie Griffith) leaves the restaurant without paying, forcing Charlie (Jeff Daniels), who has no money either, to run out without paying. However, I did not remember the radical shift in the middle of the movie, when it stops being a comedy and becomes a dark drama, thriller almost.

What's interesting, though, is the similarity between the movies. Both "Planes" and "Something Wild" are road movies, in which one of the main characters has no home to return to (either physically or emotionally). In both movies, the character keeps her "no home" situation a secret, and the secret is revealed towards the end of the film.

Del (John Candy) doesn't tell Page (Steve Martin) that his beloved wife had been dead for 8 years. Page finds it out by himself only at the end of the movie, by adding up all the small clues that were dropped along the way.

Charlie (Jeff Daniels) doesn't tell Lulu (Melanie Griffith) that his wife left him a few months earlier. Lulu's husband, who just got out of jail and tries to get Lulu back to him, tells her the truth about Charlie.

So I guess that in both movies, the primary idea is you can only truly dedicate yourself to a road trip if you have nothing (no one) to lose. In "Planes, trains and automobiles", Del craves Page's company because he's lonely, and his loneliness explains why, unlike Page, he only wants the trip back home to be longer. In "Something Wild", we first think Charlie joins Lulu to escape his boring family life, but it turns he's lost his wife and kids to another man. Hence, he joins Lulu because he has no family.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Don't tell Syd

I'm currently reading Syd Field's book, "Screenplay". Like I already wrote, among the many examples he brings up, Field returns quite often to scenes from "Lord of the rings". He also gives examples from other movies I either haven't seen, or I saw yet I don’t care for. When I come across these paragraphs (and sometimes full pages), I find myself in a dilemma. I want to skip them, but I feel bad. Thinking about it, I found that the bad feeling is in fact a combination of two sub-feelings:

- I might miss something. Yes, it looks boring, but maybe it's worth the effort, maybe there's some magical moment of revelation hiding in there.

- I'm cheating. My nerdy soul won't let me say I read the book knowing that I skipped a few pages in the middle.

When I was reading "Writing the comedy film" (Stuart Voytilla and Scott Petri), I did allow myself to skip some chapters. A big part of the book is dedicated to different comedy genres. I decided it was ok for me to read only about genres that are relevant for my screenplay (ensemble comedy, farce) or genres that interest me (fish out of water, romantic comedy), and skip other genres (sports comedy, military comedy).

But in Syd Field's case, it's different. It's not that easy to let go. The book's subtitle is "the foundations of screenwriting". Can I really allow myself to miss a foundation? Finally, I decided - yes. It's ok. I can read the chapter titled "plot points" and skip the three pages about "Matrix". I can read the "sequence" chapter and skip the two pages about "Seabiscuit". And I'll sleep well.

And another thing: Syd is quite strict about his screenplay paradigm. On one hand, he says there are no rules. On the other hand, he says you should use 14 cards to write the first act. If you only have 12-13 cards that usually means your first act is too thin, and if you have 15-16 cards then your first act is too long. That's pressure right there. I mean, his whole approach to the first act is very helpful – stressing how important it is, looking at it as if it was an independent story with a beginning, middle and an end – but when it comes to having exactly 14 cards, that's a bit too much for me. He also says you should have 14 cards for the first half of act II, 14 for the second half of act II, and another 14 for act III. He mentions films that used less or more than that, but he definitely gives you the impression that you won't be able to pull that off yourself. I have to say I like Robert Mckee's looser approach to the cards: No numbers. Just write all your scenes on cards and shift them around till you're happy with the order.

Anyway, yesterday I went out and bought a stack of cards. I feel like soon I'll be able to fill them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Writing tips, courtesy of Stuart Beattie

I'm happy to join filmforthesoul's COUNTING DOWN THE ZEROS project. For the year 2004, I wrote a piece about "Collateral" (Michael Mann). You can click here to read it.

While working on my piece, I found this rather long conversation with screenwriter Stuart Beattie, who wrote "Collateral". I'm not a fan of all his films, nor have I seen all of them, but I did find the interview very interesting, screenwriting-wise. Beattie was born in Sydney, Australia. He moved to Los Angeles at 21, first to study and later to work as a screenwriter, and he has lived there since. He wrote the first draft for "Collateral" when he was 19, in 1991. The movie was shot 13 years (and a few drafts) later. Here are some points he brings up:

About screenwriting

He usually thinks about a story for at least 6 months, refining the idea, and then it takes him 6-7 weeks to actually write it. The more he thinks about it before setting it on paper, it gets easier and quicker for him to write it.

When asked what he had learned throughout years of writing scripts and reading scripts, Beattie mentioned these two squeals:
- Starting a scene as late as possible and ending it as early as possible.
- Writing cinematic dialogues – short and light.

About Collateral

Beattie recorded a commentary for the "Collateral" DVD but it was edited out

He discusses the procedure of making scenes believable. The interviewer asks specifically about the credibility of scenes such as Max taking Vincent to visit his mother in the hospital. I personally had no problem with that scene's likeliness – I found that Vincent's back seat philosophical outbursts need much more explanation than that scene (and I think I managed to explain them, too).

About Hollywood

He explains about the writers' credits arbitration procedure in Hollywood, which involves sending all the different movie drafts to three anonymous readers who decide which writer deserves which credit. He also mentions no one is ever happy with the final decision.

For beginning writers, he recommends submitting your screenplay to screenwriting competitions as a way to get your name out there.

When asked if he ever feared that by letting others read his scripts, his ideas might get stolen, he simply answered no: you can't control that anyway, so there's no point worrying about that. A screenwriter's strategy, he says, should be to always have more than one script he's working on, more than one he's trying to sell, because you can't bet all your money on only one specific screenplay. That's too much pressure.

Read the full interview with Stuart Beattie at

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Going to the movies

"This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies".

The late John Hughes explains why he chose to live and shoot films in Chicago and not move to Los Angeles. Via

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Beginnings and endings: The graduate

I'm launching this series of "Beginnings and endings" posts with Mike Nichols' 1967 classic, "The graduate". Based on a novel by Charles Webb and written for the screen by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, "The graduate" has a great opening, and a tremendously iconic ending. (By the way, this post turned out to be very long. my apologies).

The beginning of "The Graduate"

What I like about this beginning is that it dives directly into the story – it's not the common "short story that precedes the actual story" kind of beginning, that's meant mainly to establish the characters and context of the story (Like the high-school sequence in "Something about Mary", or the beginning of "Tootsie" that shows Dustin Hoffman's life before he starts impersonating as a woman). In "The graduate", the characters and the context are established as the story happens. I realize that not every story can begin this way, but I enjoy stories that do.

The first twenty minutes of "The graduate" take place in three different locations: airport, Ben's parents' house, the Robinsons' house. Interestingly enough, all following scenes are built "by the book" (Robert Mckee's book) in terms of conflict: the different characters in each scene have conflicting desires, which means that every scene has a conflict or several conflicts in it:

0:00:00 - 0:02:40 , Opening credits
Ben is at the airport, back home after he graduated college.

0:02:40 - 0:04:07 , Ben tries to avoid his parents' party
Ben sits in his old room at his parents' house. There's a party celebrating his coming home from college. All the guests are Ben's parents' friends and he doesn't want to get out of the room and face them. He feels bothered and confused about his future. His parents make him get out of the room.

0:04:04 - 0:06:15, Ben runs away from his parents' party
Ben joins the party. Different guests congratulate him for the different awards he got in college. They ask about his plans for the future. He's embarrassed. He tries to avoid them. Eventually he runs back to his room.

0:06:15 - 0:08:26, First encounter with Mrs. Robinson
Ben is alone in his room. Mrs. Robinson enters, says she's looking for the bathroom. He tells her where to find them it she stays in the room. After a short conversation in which Ben asks her to leave him alone, she asks him to drive her home because her husband left earlier with their car. Ben unwillingly agrees to take her home.

0:08:26 - 0:12:50, Mrs. Robinson starts seducing Ben
Ben and Mrs. Robinson arrive at her house. She demands he will accompany her inside because she's afraid to enter a dark empty house. He unwillingly agrees. They enter the living room .He wants to leave, she demands he stays till her husband comes home. She pours him a drink, puts on music and tells him she was an alcoholic. Ben panics, accuses her of seducing him, he wants to leave. She tells him to relax, denying any seduction attempt. She offers to show him her daughter's (Elaine) portrait.

0:12:50 - 0:15:57, Mrs. Robinson officially seduces Ben
They're up at Elaine's room. Ben admires the portrait. Mrs. Robinson asks him to unzip her dress because she wants to go to bed. He unwillingly agrees. After opening her zipper he starts heading towards the door. Mrs. Robinson is left with only a bra and a slip on. She asks what is he afraid of, still claiming she is not seducing him. He says if anyone walked in on them, they might get the wrong idea. She walks towards him, asking if he's trying to say that he wants her to seduce him. He says goodbye, walks out of the room and starts getting down the stairs. She asks him to bring up her purse from the living room before he leaves. He unwillingly agrees. He's back upstairs with her purse, in Elaine's room. Mrs. Robinson enters the room naked, blocking the door. He panics. She says she's available to him anytime if he wants to sleep with her, and that she finds him very attractive. He feels nervous and uncomfortable. There's a sound of a car stopping outside the house. Ben understands her husband has come back home, he pushes her from the door, and runs downstairs.

0:15:57 - 0:20:00, Mr. Robinson comes home
Ben is in the living room, holding the drink Mrs. Robinson poured him earlier. Mr. Robinson enters the house. Ben quickly explains he's there because Mrs. Robinson asked him to drive her home, and to wait for him to arrive. Mr. Robinson thanks him. Ben starts to leave, explains he is concerned about his future. Mr. Robinson insists he stays for a drink. He unwillingly stays. Mr. Robinson tells Ben he should take things easier, have a few flings this summer. Mrs. Robinson joins them (dressed). Ben starts leaving. Mr. Robinson asks his wife if she agrees with him that Ben should have some flings this summer. She says yes. They escort him out of the house. Mr. Robinson tells Ben that Elaine is supposed to come for a visit from Berkley, and suggests Ben will call her. Mrs. Robinson reminds Ben to think about her offer. Ben enters his car.

Actions and dialogues

I like that the films starts right at the crucial night of the inciting incident (Mrs. Robinson's act of seduction), and that the dialogues and situations give all the needed information about the characters without drawing attention to it. The opposite would be, for example, the beginning of "The Royal Tenenbaums", where a voice over tells the family history before the actual story begins.

Here are a few examples for dialogues and action that demonstrate character in "The Graduate":
When Ben's father asks him to join the party, he says "these are all our good friends, Ben", which tells us that his parents see him as an extension of themselves, rather than an autonomic entity. Their friends, as they see it, are his friends.

When Mrs. Robinson visits Ben's room and attempts having a conversation with him, she notices he is bothered. She asks him "Is it a girl?", while looking to her left. As a respond, Ben looks at the same direction as she did, searching to see what it is she's looking at: "Is what a girl?". Ben is not only stressed, but he's obviously not squealed enough in conversation nor in flirtation, to understand her.

Seeing his panic and embarrassment during the entire interaction with Mrs. Robinson, the climax being when she enters the room naked, you understand he is basically an inexperienced and clumsy nerd, calculated (what will people think) rather than passionate (young men tend to be horny, so I hear).

The ending of "The Graduate"

The end of the film finds Ben much more assertive. If at the start he had no idea what he wanted (in terms of career), now he knows what he wants – he wants Elaine (he doesn't care about his future career anymore).

He drives to Berkley and asks her to marry him. She almost agrees , though she already agreed to marry another guy. Then Mrs. Robinson (who forbade Ben to see her daughter) tells Elaine that Ben raped her. Elaine believes her and tells Ben she never wants to see him again. Her parents arrange for a quick wedding with that other guy she planned to marry, in order to get Ben out of her life. When Ben finds out about the wedding he drives up to the church to stop it. When he runs out of gas, he starts running. When he get there and realizes they are already married, he still doesn't give up, banging on the church windows, calling "Elaine!". To her parents' and husband's surprise, she answers by crying back "Ben!". She runs towards him, while her parents try to block her and block Ben from reaching her. They manage to escape and run together from the church after leaving everybody else locked in it. They stop the first bus they see and get on it.

A quick search on YouTube shows just how popular this ending scene is. In part, I guess, because it answers Francois Trufaut's advice (as brought by Robert Mckee) - end with memorable images, that incorporate the movie's story and message. The church and the bus scenes both answer that.

"The Graduate" also offers a good example of Sid Field's argument (mentioned previously here), that the beginning and the end should reflect one another. There are a few themes that appear both at the beginning and the end of the film.

The theme of motion and transportation, that demonstrates Ben's transformation: from a naïve and lost young man, to a decisive man who goes publicly against his family and after his own desire.

The movie begins with a shot of Ben sitting in a plane, a face in the crowd (close up of his face, followed by a long shot of him surrounded by other indifferent passengers), traveling back home after graduating college. After landing in L.A., alongside the movie credits ad Simon and Garfunkel's "Sound of silence", we see Ben riding the airport's automatic sidewalk for 2 minutes. This opening sequence shows Ben as someone who's being led automatically rather than initiating any action.

At the end, Ben is driving a car, then running, and finally boarding a bus to an unknown destination – all of the above are actions he initiates for himself, not designed by anyone else.

The theme of aquarium and glass: Ben sitting next to the fish aquarium in his room at the beginning vs. Ben hitting the church glass walls at the end, and looking back from the bus window. At the beginning he's clinging to his fishes, avoiding life, while at the end it's his life (or the life he doesn't want) that he's looking at through the glass after defying them.

Mike Nichols' terror

At the very final shot of the movie, Ben and Elaine sit on the back seats of the bus, all the other passengers staring at them with astonishment. Ben and Elaine first laugh, then smile, then just sit there with serious, almost concerned, faces.

When Mike Nichols was a guest at the actors studio, he spoke about the movie's final scene, stating the significant role the unconscious has in making films. Nichols says he actually wanted Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross to laugh all the way till the end of that bus scene, only he had been obnoxious to them that day, yelling at them to laugh (since they stopped traffic for that scene they didn't have time for many takes). As a result, Hoffman and Ross were so afraid of Nichols that they couldn’t manage to maintain the laugh, and so laughter was replaced by terror. When he saw the footage the day after, Nichols understood that this is what the end was really supposed to be like, realizing he unconsciously made them do that.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Make it work! August deadlines

I'll begin with a quick summery of July's deadlines: I studied "Meet the Fockers" and "There's something about Mary". I started but haven’t finished both my characters mission, and my "beginnings and endings" mission. but I now know that there's still work left for me to do in order to be able to finish them. Mainly: I realized I can't understand my leading characters without diving into some serious research. And if I don't have my characters, how can I know my beginning and end? I won't elaborate on the research details because I'm maintaining a story ambiguity policy. I can only say that the research will involve searching for reading material, and then reading that material.

My missions for August are:

1. Start serious research in order to deepen my leading characters' study.

2. Finish reading "Screenplay" by Sid Field, start reading "The writer's journey" by Christopher Vogler.

3. Study "La cage aux folles". I already mentioned this movie as a major inspiration. This time I want to study its structure, as I did in my previous case studies. I guess this means also watching the American version, "The Birdcage", for the first time.

I'd like to continue my tradition, and seal each deadlines post with a Tim Gunn video. So this time it's Santino, from seasom 2 of "Project Runway", doing an imitation of Tim Gunn (he's actually throwing in some Nine Inch Nails lyircs). Season 2 was a good one.