Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Always Be Closing, Part 3: Sell Them What They Came to Buy

The worst thing you can do in a meeting is think like an artist. Instead, you have to constantly remind yourself that you’re now a salesman. Selling your own talent is not that different from selling plungers, and the sooner you learn basic sales techniques, the more success you’ll have. 

Everybody in this business overpraises each other, so when you first get “launched” you’re in real danger of concluding that you really are a red-hot property, and production companies are lucky to get a chance to meet with you. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth:

By the time you walk in the door, the producers’ day has gone to hell and they’re sorry they ever scheduled this meeting. They just want to nod dumbly as you rattle off your pitches, offer glowing assurances that they’ll get back to you, and get you out the door. I had meetings just like that and I left feeling like the king of the world, sure that I’d blown them away. They never called.

You may have carefully prepared beforehand what you want to pitch (more on this tomorrow), but you need to be prepared to throw it all away on a moment’s notice. Dont sell them what you came to sell, sell them what they came to buy!

Think about it: this person has invited a dozen salesmen to come into their office and pitch them.  Who does that?  Someone who really wants to buy something!  But... they will not want to tell you what they’re looking for. They want to stay close-lipped, force you lay out your wares, and then summarily judge you. But your job is to force them to reveal what they want to buy, and then immediately say, “What a coincidence, that’s just what I love to write!”

This is the age-old dance of sales, and one rule usually determines the winner: Whoever speaks first, loses. Get them to talk about themselves more than you talk about yourself. Get them to talk about their upcoming projects before you tell them about your own. Find out what they want, then offer that to them. 

When you do have to talk about what you’re working on, be hyper-alert to any verbal or physical sign that they’re losing interest, then immediately and seamlessly move on to something that might interest them more. 

This is especially true when you’re competing with other writers for adaptations. The producers have an idea in their mind of how they want this material adapted, and they’re waiting for someone to come in who had that same idea independently. But you can beat the guessing game and tease the truth out of them using old-fashioned techniques:

Here’s a fiendish pitch: “This is such a fantastic book, and it needs to be made into a movie, but it would be so easy to screw it up! There are so many different ways to go with it. On the one hand, you could play up this element, but on the other hand, you could go in the opposite direction and play up this other element…”

What do you say next? Nothing. You pause. You create an uncomfortable silence, until they jump in and tell you what they want to hear! Once they’ve confessed what they’re looking for, then you say, “Oh, it’s so good to hear you say that! That’s exactly what I was thinking. So many producers would ruin this by taking it the other way!” Ruthless, but effective.

But wait, doesn’t this mean that you have to have multiple pitches prepared? Yes it does: tomorrow, we tackle the Pitch Pyramid.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Always Be Closing, Part 2: Prepare Yourself

Taking a meeting is literally dizzying. They spin you around the office quickly, surrounding you with impressive looking souvenirs of their movies, introduce you quickly to six different people, and then, just before the sit-down, three of those people disappear and get replaced by three more people who they never introduce.

Your reps should help you deal with this, but far too often, they will fail to prepare adequately you for a meeting, which is dumb because this is your opportunity to make them money. But there are certain things you must demand that your reps tell you beforehand:

  1. What material of yours was sent to these people, who specifically in the company read it, and what they had to say about it.
  2. Who exactly is going to be in the room. Hopefully with a physical description of each one.
  3. Who the decision maker in the room is.
  4. See if your rep can find out what open assignments might be pitched to you.

Once you have this info, do a massive amount of internet prep on your own:

  1. Get an IMDb Pro membership and learn everyone’s credits. Be ready to compliment each one on a project of theirs that you liked. Also, make sure to compliment the whole company if they had a hit movie that month. Sound like you’re already one of the team.
  2. While you’re on their IMDb Pro page, check out the company’s upcoming slate, and look for links to recent articles about their company philosophy and what they’re looking to acquire.
  3. You’ll really hit the jackpot if you can actually find an interview where they come right out and say what they’ve always wanted to hear in a pitch. Believe it or not, I’ve found this info more than once. People in this business love to talk about their process.
  4. If you know (or can guess) which project they might throw at you, then research the hell out of it, but don’t tell them that in the meeting. If they’ve optioned a book, read it quickly before the meeting, then pretend like you just happened to have read it a while back. Producer feel a zing of kismet when you say, “What a coincidence, I love that book, too!”

Now you’re ready for the big day. Get dressed up in jeans and a blazer (the unofficial screenwriter uniform). Get there an hour early, but linger across the street until 10 minutes before. (If it’s in a hard-to-find corner of L.A., you might want to drive out there to scout the place the day before.) Be steely and professional on the inside, casual and breezy on the outside.

Tomorrow: How to sell yourself, the old-fashioned way...

Monday, November 28, 2011

Always Be Closing, Part 1: A Meeting is a Consolation Prize

When I got signed, I was so proud of the fact that I had bluffed my reps into thinking that I was a big shot, that I didn’t realize the problem: If they think you’re already are a big-shot, they’re not going to tell you what you need to know to become one.

In particular, I was totally unprepared for the “general meetings” I was sent out on. I didn’t realize that these are tightrope acts dominated by unspoken rules. For instance, if a production company is meeting with you, that means three things:
  1. They have read a screenplay you wrote.
  2. They liked it a lot.
The third one was the one that nobody told me. They didn’t invite you there to close a sale. If they wanted to buy your material, they would have simply called your rep and made an offer. The general meeting is what happens when they don’t do that. It’s the consolation prize.

So if you’re not there to sell them what they read, why are you there? I eventually figured out that there are three phases to a general meeting:
  1. First, you discuss the project that they liked but decided not to buy. This is an excuse to tell them about your process and your passion. It’s also a very-long-shot opportunity to try to change their mind and get them to buy it after all, but you still can’t come on like a salesman. Instead you have to adopt a “Gee it’s a shame we can’t just do that one together” tone.
  2. Second, you ask them about open assignments. These might be properties (novels, comic books, board games, etc.) they bought the rights to but haven’t hired anybody to adapt yet. Most production companies have a few of these sitting around. Also: screenplays that they paid other writers for, only to kill the project because they cooled on it. They might bounce that idea off you to see if you can instantly propose a new take that will reinvigorate their interest.
  3. Third, you can ask them if they’re willing to hear a pitch. This can be an original spec screenplay that you want to sell to them, or a concept that you want to be paid to write, or a property that you want to propose that they option for you to adapt.
One time, I seemingly hit the trifecta. I was pitching to a top guy at HBO. First we discussed the screenplay he’d read: hearing my passion for it, he suddenly announced that he’d changed his mind and he would pitch it to his colleagues after all! Then he mentioned an old project: I sparked to it and he said he’d send me their material on it! Then I pitched him a similar idea of my own, and he asked me to write up a treatment! Huzzah! 

What was the result? The usual: nothing came of any of it. But it sure was fun at the time, and at least I had figured out what was supposed to happen. Come back tomorrow for more stuff I wish I’d known sooner…

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Underrated Movie #140: Dark Days

Title: Dark Days
Year: 2000
Director: Marc Singer (Not the Beastmaster, a different guy)
Stars: Ralph, Dee, Henry, Brian, Clarence, Julio, Lee, Jose, etc…

The Story: A haunting, funny and eerie visit with the “mole people”: A group of surprisingly upbeat homeless people who have found a sustainable life for themselves in abandoned train tunnels beneath the streets of Manhattan. They tap into the electrical grid for power and the pipes for showers, scavenge together houses for themselves complete with working kitchens, and try to survive.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was Singer’s first and only association with any film of any kind, and so it’s in danger of being forgotten as a great one-off.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This movie is all the more remarkable if you know the backstory: A British would-be male model comes to America, crashes on the couches of other fashion world orbiters, finds out about the tunnel-dwellers for the first time and casually decides to make a documentary about them despite having no idea what he’s doing. His artsy friends convince him that he must shoot on film despite the fact that the light conditions are going to be non-existent and huge amounts of footage would be necessary on no budget. This should all add up to a disastrous, pretentious incompetent mess. But, amazingly, the final product is a profound, luminous work of art.
  2. The level of access is astounding. Singer eventually moved down there with them and built his own home, not to make himself a character in the movie, but just to get to know them. When one of the “houses” burns down. creating a homeless problem even amongst the homeless, what Singer doesn’t tell you onscreen is that he then surrendered his own house to the person whose house burned.
  3. The ironies pile up thick and fast. Most of them are defiantly proud to be homeless, but life underground becomes all about cooking, cleaning, security, and pressuring each other to give up drugs. Starting from scratch, they re-create everything they left behind (See the hair-cutting salon below). At one point a can-recycler talks about trying to make more money during the week so that he can take Saturday or Sunday off, as if that were a great new idea.
  4. Singer’s also coy about the fact that the footage he shot helps contribute to the movie’s shockingly happy ending. Instead, he rightly gives the credit to the resourceful mole people who, for the most part, saved themselves. When one of them dismantles his home so that he can move to the surface at the end, he casually reminds his friend, “Don’t mix the dirty clothes with the clean ones.” It’s a cathartic moment for the audience.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The most harrowingly realistic fictional movie about homelessness was Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge. Chaplin’s The Kid, one of the first ever feature films, is also surprising honest about the subject.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: What Happened in 2,000 A.D.?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #109: Create Subconscious Anticipation

Yesterday, we left off on the idea that the best way to keep a reader reading is if they’re anticipating something that’s about to happen. This can be something dangerous, or it can be something minor that only has a subconscious effect on the reader and/or viewer. 

If you don’t have an excuse to yank one character away at the end, there are all sorts of subtle ways to create a minor climax within a scene: Begin a kitchen scene with the toaster lever being forced down... The audience will subconsciously sense that the scene will end with the toast popping up.
Or in a comedic scene, simply have a character unable to think of a word at the beginning, which is driving them crazy. Just when the audience has forgotten about that, the scene ends with their exclamation of the word.
There are lots of ways to add a little element that tells a complete story in every long-ish scene:
  • Add a dog that’s trying to get fed the whole time, from each character, and then finally comes up with a clever solution at the end. Think Asta in the Thin Man movies, or Momo on “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
  • If two characters are loudly arguing, add a meek person who keeps trying to get the attention of one of the two arguers the whole time, then comes up with a clever solution to get what he needs.
  • Have a character hastily cover up the evidence of some mistake they’ve made at the beginning of the scene, then let the audience forget about it, then have it pop up again and get revealed at the end of the scene, causing much embarrassment.
There’s no better example of this than the beloved Nazi monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who gets hoist on his own poison petard. What could have been a dull exposition scene comes to life, only to end tragically for one poor monkey. Who is a Nazi.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #108: Give Each Scene Its Own Ticking Clock

This should be obvious, but I’ve just figured it out. We all know that the overall plot needs a ticking time clock to ramp up motivation, but you can also add a time limit countdown to almost every scene. Now that I’ve started doing it, I find that it’s surprisingly easy-- At the beginning of every scene, toss in a line like one of these:
  • “I have to go, so I can only talk for a second.”
  • “Let me ask you something before he comes back in the room.”
  • “We have to do this quick before anybody notices we’re gone.”
If one spouse wants to discuss something in the kitchen in the morning, the other spouse should be running late. If they’re in bed at night, one of them should have taken a sleeping pill. The one with the problem now has a limited time to get the answer they need.

This has additional benefits: Writers always try to build events towards a climax, but that’s not how life naturally works. In real life, when people kiss, or say I love you for the first time, or get in a fight, they tend to talk about it afterwards, which is inherently anticlimactic. If you have a pre-established excuse to cut the scene short, you can go out on a bang by yanking one character away.
This way, the characters don’t get to resolve all of their issues too early in your script. If someone says “I love you” right before someone shows up to arrest their love interest (or freeze him in carbonite), the writer is allowed to let it dangle for a while. Also, this is a good way to get non-emotional characters to say emotional things. When the pressure’s on, our defenses get dropped.

This can also take the heat off your villain. The more you allow minor, incidental pressures to provide the conflict, the less you have to write overheated rhetoric about good vs. evil. Instead of forcing the characters to endlessly fret about one big conflict, remember that the pressure they’re under can complicate their life in a dozen smaller ways, keeping them on edge even when they’re not under attack.
The best way to keep a reader reading is if they’re anticipating that something is about to happen, in the story as a whole and within each scene. Tomorrow we’ll look at some subtler ways to do that...

Monday, November 21, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #107: In Praise of Firing the Writer

When a super-bomb like The A-Team comes out, screenwriters love to take potshots: “No wonder it bombed, I hear that they had ten different writers working on it! When will they learn to just stick with the first writer?” But let’s be honest. It doesn’t always work that way.

Whenever a movie has been in development too long, it starts to develop a stink. Insiders confidently dismiss the whole project as a mess for years before it even comes out. So it’s always a big surprise when one of those long-in-development messes turns out to be a genuinely enjoyable movie.Let’s look at Pirates of the Caribbean, Charlie’s Angels, and Iron Man. None of these movies had any right to be good. They were adaptations of, respectively, a theme park ride, a terrible TV show and a third-tier comic book. Even worse, each had worn a long and torturous path to the screen. This was especially dangerous because all three movies were aiming for the most elusive tone of all: light-hearted action. How could all those cooks keep a light soufflĂ© from falling by sticking their meddling thumbs into it?

And yet, for my money, these are three of the most unexpectedly delightful popcorn movies of the last decade. Were they hits despite hiring all those screenwriters or, dare I say it, because of it? To answer that question, we need to look no further than the sequels. In each case, the producers took the last writer/team standing from the previous movie and kept them on through the whole process the second time around.

That would seem to make sense: The initial writers on the first movie had failed, and the final writer/team had succeeded, so they should have just hired that writer/team in the first place, right? Wrong. All three sequels sucked.

If you want to know why, look no further than the excellent writers’ commentary on the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, to their credit, clearly and carefully document the contributions of each credited writer, and they make it very clear why that movie was so good. If I may vastly over-simplify: Jay Wolpert had a great concept, Stuart Beattie added great characters, and Elliott and Rossio shaped those elements into a great plot. Now look at the POTC sequels, which were written solely by the team of Elliot and Rossio: They’re all plot! Endless mounds of plot! The characterization, so strong in the first movie, was totally gone.Sometimes, you have to fire the writer and bring in other voices with different strengths. It doesn’t always work—Movies like The A-Team are probably unsalvageable, but let’s not pretend that multiple writers always harm a project. Sometimes a succession of writers creates a better project than any one writer could have imagined.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #106: In Praise of Notes

We all know that producers can ruin a movie with too many notes, and the biggest problem in Hollywood right now is that movies take way too long to get made. Clint Eastwood, to his credit, doesn’t have either of these problems. In fact, he’s gained a reputation as the only director in Hollywood that always shoots the first draft he’s given, then comes back on time and under-budget with a beautiful-looking movie. Great, so he’s the solution, right? Well, not quite.

I love some of Eastwood’s later work, but not all of it, and I’m sorry to report that J. Edgar is pretty much a stinkbomb. This is especially disappointing because the screenwriter is Dustin Lance Black, whose only previous movie was one of my favorites of the recent years: Milk.

If you put a great screenwriter together with a respectful director, you should get magic, but often the opposite happens. Here’s Black talking about his sheer terror he felt when he found out that Eastwood was going to shoot his first draft:

“When I found out Clint was interested it was both a blessing and bit of ‘Oh, boy… There are some things I’d like to change still.’ I’d heard Peter Morgan say that on [Eastwood’s previous movie] Hereafter, he’d had that feeling …but they were already shooting! …But it is funny because I went to Rob Lorenz and I said, ‘Hey, we should probably cut a good chunk out of the first act. That’s kind of everything and the kitchen sink.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, we’ll shoot it all and we’ll see what turns out well.’”

As loathe as I am to admit it, J. Edgar was made too quickly and with too few notes. We screenwriters love to complain about how directors and producers mess up our work. And more often than not, that’s true. 90% of everything is crap, so therefore 90% of notes are crap. And if you get a hidebound producer or director who insists that you stick to them, they’ll ruin a good script, no question.

But 10% of notes are great. And great notes are an essential component of a great movie. That’s what a great director and a great producer do: they give great notes. They shape screenplays, which are inherently abstract, into full-bodied stories. Given how wobbly the screenplay for J. Edgar is, I now suspect that Gus Van Sant buried Black in notes for Milk. Which isn’t to say that Black isn’t a great screenwriter: he is, and even J. Edgar has brief flashes of genius, but every writer needs notes. Look what happened to J. K. Rowling when they stopped giving her notes.

Film is a collaborative medium, where a collective of artists creates collective meaning for a collective audience. J. Edgar is a claustrophobic movie with no sense of perspective. It doesn’t breathe. It was made to make a point, not to make us identify with a human being, as all great bio-pics do, and as Milk did. Eastwood just transcribed Black’s script onto the screen, when he should have brought it to life.

But hey, as long as I’m being heretical, let’s go even farther… Tomorrow: In Praise of Firing the Writer!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Storyteller's Rulebook #105: Explaining the Plot is Not Your Characters’ Job

Let’s talk about one of the biggest plot holes in cinema. When Jimmy Stewart is following Kim Novak around in Vertigo, many spooky things seem to happen, but in the last half-hour of the movie, we find out this was all an elaborate con job, with no supernatural element.

And for the most part, that works: Once we know what was really going on, we see everything in a new light and it all makes sense… except one scene: What about that time that Stewart followed Novak into the hotel, only to discover that she’d vanished into thin air? The explanation doesn’t cover that.

As I pointed out before, this particular plot hole isn’t really a problem, because depth is found in holes. A little messiness can make a movie more mysterious and encourages long-term contemplation. That’s good, because, if Hitchcock had tried to explain this away, he would have run into a bigger problem…

It’s not hard to imagine an explanation: What if the villain had paid off the landlady of the hotel to lie to Stewart? Or what if Novak had rigged up a way to escape from the hotel room without being seen? We can guess, but we’ll never know for sure. This brings up the question: why not tidy up the movie by having Stewart ask Novak (an hour of screentime later) how she pulled that off?

Because plotting is the job of the writer, not the characters. This is why it’s so hard to write thrillers. You don’t want to reveal the twist too soon, so you play your cards close to the vest. Then, after the twist goes down, It’s very tempting to toss in a lot of “backfill” where the characters belatedly explain why everything happened the way it did.

Don’t do this. Once the plot twists, it should be instantly obvious how everything now fits together. If anything is still unclear, just leave it. Producers sometimes ask writers to “hang an explainer on it,” which is always a terrible idea. Your characters, and your audience, should be way too caught up in what’s happening next. If the plot doesn’t quite make sense, that’s your problem, not theirs.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The First 15 Minutes Project #12: Richard Boyle

Richard Boyle in Salvador

  1. Rapid-fire montage of newsreel-style footage of a massacre in El Salvador. Thriller music plays.
  2. A news report tells us about what’s going on in El Salvador.
  3. Boyle is woken up by three things: this news report, this baby crying, and the landlord knocking on the door. His baby’s mother cries and says she can’t live like this anymore.
  4. Later, using the payphone in the hall while others wait for the phone, Boyle begs various news agencies for a press pass to go drum up some news in El Salvador before it blows up. He brags about the various heroic newsgathering jobs he’s done in the past: the last American journalist out of Cambodia, etc. A friend is heading for the airport but agrees to loan him $500 if he can get there in time.
  5. Boyle speeds across San Francisco, gets pulled over. He has not license or registration and several tickets have gone to warrant. He’s arrested.
  6. In jail, Boyle is bailed out by his DJ friend Doctor Rock, who spends a lot to get Boyle and his car released, on the condition that Boyle take him to get his dog out of a pound.
  7. Boyle and Dr. Rock drive across town. They complain about yuppied women. Boyle prefers Latin women, who are kind and understanding. It turns out that they’ve both been kicked out and planned on crashing with the other. They complain about the yuppie cars on the road.
  8. They show up at the pound. They explain that they put Dr. Rock’s dog to sleep. “That was my only relationship! My best friend! Seven years! My marriage only lasted five!”
  9. They go to Boyle’s place. His wife has gone back to Italy to her parents, leaving only the TV and a dirty diaper in the crib. “It was a marriage made in hell. I sure am gonna miss my boy. (shrugs) Maybe she’ll be back.” Dr. Rock jokes: “Sure. Who could leave all this?”
  10. Back on the highway, Boyle suggests that they roadtrip down to Guatemala. “Why?” “Why not? No cops. No laws. Sun. It’s cheap. No yuppies. Great dope.” They toss an empty beer can on the highway.
  11. As they drive through Mexico: “Look at you. You’re a walking museum of the ‘60s.” “What the fuck are you?” “I am a forward thinking human being! I know about life because I explore things. Being a journalist, you’re in touch with reality.” “You come off with this journalist bullshit all the time. I haven’t seen one goddamn thing that you’ve written.” “I wrote a book” “That was ten years ago!”
  12. They enter El Salvador. “You said Guatemala! You never said anything about El Salvador! They kill people here, Boyle!” “You believe everything you read in the papers? You’ll love it! C’mon doc, this is my last chance, man. I’m serious, if I get some good combat shots for AP I can make some money. Pay you back!” “You’d better pay me back!” (Boyle is smoking a joint as he drive, Dr. Rock is washing down pills with alcohol.) “We could go to Los Libertas, best surfing beach in the world. You can drive drunk! Get anyone killed for 50 bucks!” “I don’t want to get anybody killed” “Where else can you get a virgin to sit on your face for seven bucks??” That finally convinces Dr. Rock to stay.
  13. They come across soldiers who have just killed some people. “Who are these clowns” “Traffic accident.” Then Rock sees a burning corpse on the side of the road. “Shit, Boyle!” The death squad realizes that Boyle is a journalist and takes them both into custody. They watch the soldiers kill somebody on the side of the road. Boyle insists that he’s friends with their boss and asks to be taken to him…

This is a classic example of triangulation: no matter how extreme a character is, you can always make him look moderate by putting him in the middle of a spectrum, in which he contrasts favorably with people who are even worse. In order to make Boyle’s reckless journalism seem acceptable, Stone contrasts him with journalists who play it way too safe. In order to get us to accept Boyle’s hedonism, Stone gives him a best friend who is even more reckless.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The First 15 Minutes Project #11: Tom Ripley

Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley

  1. Flashforward: Tom, looking distraught but handsome, staring blankly ahead, sits in a rolling boat cabin while the titles chop up his face. VO: “If I could just go back. If I could rub everything out, starting with myself. Starting with borrowing a jacket…”
  2. Flashback: a rooftop garden in NYC overlooking Central Park. Tom, looking much geekier, wears a crested Yale blazer, plays classical piano while a vocalist sings. Mr. Greenleaf comes over with his wife and asks if they knew his son at Yale. He says “How is Dickey?” They complain to him “Dickey’s idea of music is jazz.” They say good-bye: I’ll see you at the shipyard.
  3. He runs to return the jacket to the singer’s boyfriend, who has a broken wrist.
  4. Tom works in the bathroom in the basement of an opera building brushing dandruff off people’s shoulders for spare change, wearing a uniform.
  5. He sneaks a peek at the performance by peeking through the curtains of an opera box, but the box patron turns and scowls, so he closes the curtain.
  6. After the theater is closed, Tom plays the grand piano on the stage, but the electrician shuts off the lights. Tom apologizes.
  7. At Mr. Greenleaf’s shipyard, Mr. Greenleaf says “You’ve probably heard that Dickey’s been living in Italy. Mongibello. South of Naples. No kind of place at all. Marge his young lady is supposedly writing some kind of book. God know what he does. His talent is spending his allowance.” He offers to pay Tom a thousand dollars to go to Europe and reclaim Dickey.
  8. In his basement apartment, Tom learns jazz by blindfolding himself, pulling records off a pile and playing them until he can guess who’s singing each one. He listens to Chet Baker singing My Funny Valentine and says “I don’t even know if this is a man or a woman.” He hears domestic violence upstairs. He looks at a Yale yearbook he’s acquired and the picture of Dickey.
  9. He climbs up out of his apartment to the limo picking him up. Opens his ticket for the Cunard line.
  10. In Italy, he meets an heiress named Meredith who flirts with him in the customs line. He introduces himself as Dickey Greenleaf. “One of the shipping Greenleafs?” “Trying not to be”. She points out that his luggage was under R. He says he travels under his mother’s name. She says that so is she. She’s really a Loag. “Of the…” “Yes, the shipping Loags. We’re partners in disguise.” She’s pulled away.
  11. Tom arrives in Mongibello, a picturesque shipping town.
  12. Tom reads from an Italian phrase book while he watches Dickey and Marge with binoculars. They dive off their boat, named Bird and swim to the beach. While he looks at Dickey, he says “This is my face”, then checks the book and learns how to say that in Italian.
  13. He puts on day-glo swim trunks and runs past them into the sea, then walks back past them. He turns to them and says “Dickey Greenleaf. It’s Tom. Tom Ripley.” “Did we know each other?” “Well, I knew you, so you must have known me.” “Princeton’s like a fog. America’s like a fog.” Dickey introduces him to Marge. “You’re so white!” “It’s just an undercoat.” Marge gets the joke but Dickey doesn’t. Marge says you should come and have lunch with us, anytime. Tom leaves. Dickey repeats that he doesn’t remember him.
  14. Tom walks down the street, Dickey drives past him on his vespa, picks up a local on the street.
  15. Marge is in her backyard. Dickey shows up, apologizes for being late. Tells a lie about fishing. She says “We ate everything without you. Tom Ripley’s here.” Marge says “Tom was telling me about his journey over. Made me laugh so hard I almost got a nosebleed.” Dickey asks if Tom makes martinis. He hesitates. Marge says she’ll make them. Dickey says her martinis are great. Everybody should have one great talent. He asks what Tom’s is. Tom says “forging signatures, telling lies, impersonating practically anybody.” Dickey tells him to do an impression. Tom imitates Dickey’s father, which amazes Dickey. How do you know him? “I met him in New York.” “Could you ever conceive of going to Italy, Tom, and bringing him back?” Dickey is shocked.
  16. They walk through the street, pass a wedding, Dickey touches the cheep of the girl he was flirting with. Dickey says that he’ll never go back.

If Boyle in Salvador is the asshole-truth teller, then Ripley is the flip side: the sociopathic liar. Each character type has its appeal. There’s something very thrilling about watching a character juggle lies: Every other character is fooled but we in the audience see all and know all, making us the liar’s intimate co-conspirator. We can’t help but admire the liar’s dexterity, and we develop a gleeful anticipation every time it he has to wriggle out of another trap.
And yet, the audacious moment we admire most is when he dares to unexpectedly tell the truth: He suddenly admits to Tom the real reason that he’s there. They now feel the same intimacy we do: a liar has chosen to trust them, which is deeply flattering, at first...

Monday, November 14, 2011

The 15 Minutes Project #10: Dave Chappellet in Downhill Racer

Any hero can win our sympathy by saving cats, but what if the writer wants us to like a jerk? This week, we’ll try to figure out why we care about certain heroes, even through they’re jerks...

Dave Chappellet in Downhill Racer:
  1. Opening montage: ski lift cable, shots of snowy mountain, scared skiers above, anxious fans below. A cameraman who looks like a sniper. Tense action movie music kicks in.
  2. Coach Claire (Gene Hackman) waits halfway down the course with a stopwatch, looking intense…
  3. An American skier makes an amazing run down the mountain as the credits roll, but near the bottom, the skier wipes out spectacularly.
  4. Claire looks sick at the news. Helicopter comes in and takes the skier away.
  5. Claire sees his skier in the hospital, looks worried.
  6. Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford) arrives at a European airport, but there’s no one there to meet him. He clearly doesn’t understand Europe.
  7. Chappellet and another new recruit, D. K. take the train. Chappellet is awkward getting through the train with his skis. He roughly takes a sandwich and a drink from porter.
  8. They arrive outside his hostel. D. K. heads in immediately, but Chappellet pauses to look up at each mountain, takes a deep breath and smiles…
  9. Chappellet arrives at the front desk, where Claire is on the phone, arguing about a reservation. Claire sees Chappellet and D. K., says he’s glad they got together, but they haven’t, really. Guy goes over to shake the hand of the other skiers, ignores Chappellet. Claire finally shakes Chappellet’s hand but has no time for him.
  10. Chappellet checks into his room with D. K. He’s baffled by the bidet. D. K., trying to friendly, chuckles and asks, “You know what that is?” Chappellet sullenly lies, “Yeah,” and leaves.
  11. Chappellet gets in bed, asks where he knows the other skiers from. D. K. says “Dartmouth. I was one of the Olympic hopefuls. I was hopeful, not them.” Chappellet mutters “Dartmouth” to himself, in disgust.
  12. The next day, they all put their skis on the the van. The big guy introduces himself, “Chappelet, I’m Johnny Creach.” Chappellet responds, “Yeah, I know.”
  13. Claire and his assistant time the skiers. One goes through and the assistant says “Not bad”. Claire grunts, “Too much style” The assistant says “Who’s next, Chappellet?” Chappellet skis.
  14. Claire, shocked, asks what time his assistant has. The assistant says 28:08. Claire smiles, “That’s what I have.”
  15. The next day Claire hands out the bibs that tell the skiers what order they’re going to race. He gives Chappellet a starting number of 88, and apologizes that he’s so far back. Chappellet says that he’ll be in ruts up to his knees. “What’s the point of even racing?” “Same as always, try to win,” Claire says.
  16. Cut to back at the room, Chappellet refused to race. D. K. asks why, Chappellet explains that he was seeded too far back. D. K. says he should have raced. Chappellet expresses annoyance that he has to call him “D. K.” which sounds too preppy-ish for his tastes.
  17. They take a train to the next meet. Chappellet watches the press gather around the star and looks jealous.
  18. Everybody gets their bibs. Claire gives Chappellet a similar number and teases him about it.
  19. Chappellet races and does great. Claire is pleased, despite himself.

Chappellet is a surly jerk, a bad sport, and a guy who expects acclaim before he proves himself. We should hate him, but we don’t, entirely. Why? Americans are never supposed to mention class resentments, but we all feel them, so we certainly identify with that, as well as the universal feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. And it helps that he’s really quite handsome, of course. And that he keeps winning.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a daring movie that pushes our sympathy to its limits, and forces us to admit that what we actually admire doesn’t always match was we should admire. Still, it’s worth noting that the movie does use subtle tricks to ensure that we’ll feel some genuine sympathy.