Tuesday, January 29, 2013

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” --popularly attributed to Plato

Hey guys, remember how I said to burn through all of your good ideas?  Well, I took my own advice and I’m out of material for the time being.  I’ve been working on more posts, but they’re not coming together. Time to recharge my batteries.  Please check back in a week or two.  Thanks!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Now You Can Revise, Conclusion: You’re a Poet But You Don’t Know It.

There’s one aspect of screenwriting that I’ve never discussed on this blog: the quality of the prose in your descriptive paragraphs.  I’ve avoided it because many beginning screenwriters are way too focused on this tiny aspect of the art.

As Carson at Scriptshadow likes to point out, screenwriting is 99% storytelling and 1% writing.  If you’re telling a great story, no one will care very much about the quality of your prose.  On the other hand, if you’ve got a sloppy story and you’ve wasted hours dressing it up with Ellroy-style cool-cat descriptions, then your reader will be infuriated.  Your screenplay is not “professional” just because you took out all the pronouns.

But, with all that said, there is something to be said for bettering the quality of your prose, just enough to get people to actually read it.  Most screenplay readers, including myself, get in the habit of just glossing over the prose paragraphs and only reading the dialogue unless we lose track of what’s going on.  Why?  Because the prose is usually just too turgid to wade through.

The danger is what John August calls “Dungeonmaster prose”, wherein the screenwriter categorically describes the size, shape, and contents of each room, as if walking the reader through a “Dungeons and Dragons” module. 

In reaction to this, some screenwriters have adopted a “macho haiku” style, as perfected by Walter Hill’s screenplay for Alien (and never successfully replicated by anyone else.)  The problem is that, in the end, you are more of a dungeonmaster than a poet: you really do need to describe everything well enough for your reader to picture the setting and understand everything that happens.  When I read these macho pronoun-less screenplays I usually can’t figure out what’s going on.

The trick is to describe just enough to set the scene without boring the reader.  And yes, along the way, you want to have punchy, fun prose. Here are some dos and don’ts:
  • DO introduce major characters using colorful descriptions of their “type”: “In walks BRIAN, mid-30s, the sort of guy who offers to help you move the first time he meets you.” 
  • DON’T bog down your action scenes with needless similes: “The henchman’s head snaps back so fast you’d think it was an angry mongoose.” 
  • DO assume that the reader has been in this sort of location before: give a sentence or two describing what type of bar it is, but please don’t mention that it has barstools.
  • DON’T use a simile instead of a description: “Brian enters a bar that might as well be the armpit on the world’s sweatiest plumber.”  (I swear to you I’ve read descriptions like this.) 
Punchy, high-impact sentences reward your reader for reading.  The way to do this is to embrace your inner poet, and I mean Frost, not Bukowski.  It wasn’t until I did some work crafting advertising taglines that I realized how basic the connection was between catchy writing and old-fashioned poetry: it’s all about alliteration, assonance, parallel construction, and, yes, rhyme.  At first I blanched: I can’t really rhyme, can I?  That’s so tacky!  People won’t be able to take it seriously!

Then (and this literally happened) I looked over at the cover of the book I was reading, Naomi Klein’s rousing and deadly serious economic history of the last half century, “The Shock Doctrine”.  And I suddenly realized: “Hey, that title isn’t merely descriptive!” It rhymes!  And that makes it more memorable, which makes it more powerful.  She did that on purpose!

Remember two entries back, where I ended my post by saying, “Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.”?  You’re allowed to get away with stuff like that. Don’t knock our socks off, but don’t be afraid of punchy sentences, either.

But whatever you do, and this is the last time I’ll say this, don’t worry about the prose during your first draft.  Just clarify everything.  You’re going to have to change it all anyway, so all that work would be for nothing.  Punch it up once you’ve done everything else.  And now... you’re done!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Now You Can Revise, Part 6: Use the Final Draft Tools

You’ve probably written your screenplay using Final Draft software, because that’s become the industry standard, but even if you didn’t, you might want to import it into that program now, because Final Draft has great, little-used tools that help you fine tune your script.

Many of these tools are intended for use by other professionals, such as line-producers or actors, but they come in handy for screenwriters as well:
  • As I’ve talked about before you can use the “Speech Control” tool to hear Stephen Hawking read your script out loud.  Not only is this the most foolproof way to proof-read, it also highlights awkward sounding sentences.  There was a certain TV show this season that contained this line: “There are walls even a man as dextrous as you can’t climb”.  No actor can deliver that line well!
  • You can also export “scene reports”, listing the page-length, location, and cast for each scene.  These tell you which scenes are way too long, which locations we see too much of, and which minor characters should probably be combined or eliminated.
  • You can export individual “character reports”, which allow you to see each character’s dialogue isolated into its own document, making it very clear if that character’s voice is consistent.  This is the time to make sure that character has a consistent metaphor family, default personality trait and default argument strategy.
  • It also allows you to cut out instances of multiple characters using the same turn-of-phrase.  In one episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”,  Detective Logan shows up at a crime scene and get briefed about the victim by a street cop:  “He was blackmailing a local newscaster” “Gay sex?” “Nope, call girl.  Think Spitzer, not McGreevy.”  Then, just two scenes later, Logan is in the lab talking to an expert who points out that a bomb was both old-fashioned and cutting edge.  The expert sums up by saying, “Think Tony Bennet, not Steve and Edie”  These are two completely different characters in different places, using the same distinctive turn-of-phrase!  
It’s perfectly natural to make these mistakes.  During your first draft, you can’t be bothered to create full personalities for every minor character, and there’s no reason you should, since you’re going cut out and combine a lot of these characters in subsequent drafts. 

But once your screenplay is approaching its final form, you need to go back and eliminate embarrassing examples like these, in which it become instantly obvious that each minor character has the same personality: yours. Now that Stephen Hawking is reading your script aloud, these errors should stand out like sore thumbs,

Next time: the finale: You’re a Poet and You Don’t Know It

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Now You Can Revise, Part 5: Set Up More of Your Pay-Offs

A little bit of repeat here from much-older pieces as I continue to recontextualize and tie things together for the book…

It took me a long time to realize that heroes need special skills.  You can’t just start out with a blank-slate everyman who encounters a problem and solves it by reacting in the way that anyone would. 

Instead, the hero must rely on a specific set of special skills that pre-date the movie.  Harrison Ford in The Fugitive was a doctor, so he finds ways to use his medical skills to clear his name.  Will Smith in Enemy of the State is a lawyer, so he uses those skills to get the NSA off his back. Neither one of them suddenly busts out with kung fu moves...

In those cases, the heroes made use of their day jobs, but often you’ll find that those aren’t enough to get the hero out of every scrape, and the hero suddenly need a heretofore unmentioned skill in order to overcome a specific obstacle.  Each time this happens, you can stop, go back, and pre-plant a reason those skills exist, or you can do what I do: just keep going, and fix it later.

You wrote your screenplay by going forwards, but now’s your chance to re-write it backwards.  Set up a plant for every pay-off, so that, as the audience gets to gets to each twist, they’ll say “Ah ha!” instead of “Yeah, right!”

The trick with pre-establishing special skills is to do it subtly and organically.  Here are contrasting examples:
  • In Aliens, Cameron establishes early on that Ripley can run the fork-lift exoskeleton, which will come in handy later.  He hides the significance of this by turning the plant of it into a nice little stand-up-and-cheer moment, wherein Ripley proves that her lowly dock-loading job can be useful in her new military setting.  By giving the moment a meaning of its own, he hides the fact that he’s really just setting up a special skill that Ripley will need later.
  • In Salt, on the other hand, Salt’s husband is an expert on spider-venom, which seems random and apropos of nothing.  Only later, when Salt uses a ridiculous spider-venom bullet do we realize why they put that in there.*
You can also write backwards to pre-establish things that will go wrong for your hero.  A recent episode of “Breaking Bad” began with an odd little scene establishing that a young boy was motor-biking around the collecting spiders.  The audience then forgot all about it until he showed up later, at the worst possible time.  (This also provided a nice visual thematic metaphor: you can’t bottle up evil for long.)

This is why, as per the breakdown I got from Simon Kinberg, producers are so focused on the amount of plant-and-pay-off in your script: it shows that you literally know your stuff backwards and forwards, that you’ve been circumspect, tightened all the screws and battoned down the hatches.  This assures them that the script won’t fall apart under pressure.

*Referring back to the debate in the comments of this post, this is another reason why I allow myself to make minor decisions, such as the hero’s previous jobs or the spouse’s expertise, somewhat randomly as I write the story, instead of trying to make every detail thematically significant in the first draft.  I often have to change those details later in order to shore up developments in the plot, and I would be reluctant to do so if I had already made them thematically significant.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Now You Can Revise, Part 4: Add More “I Understand You” Moments

We’ve all had the experience.  You’re sure that you’ve met your perfect match.  You rhapsodize for hours about everything that made you fall head over heels, but at the end your friend just shrugs and says, “Are you kidding me? 

The problem, of course, is that your hormonal response is distorting your reality, and your cool-eyed friends are evaluating the shelf-life of this new relationship dispassionately, asking: Do these two have enough in common?  Will they treat each other well?  Most importantly: Do they need each other?

In a “first person” novel, you can try to capture the subjective experience of falling in love, but screenwriters have a much harder job.  Movies are always in the “third person”, which means that the camera eye never gets to fully identify with one of the lovers, so it must take the perspective of that dubious friend. 

(You can try to cheat, like West Side Story did, by using subjective camera effects to capture Tony’s besotted vision of Maria, but even back then viewers just rolled their eyes.  The camera eye is not the hero’s eye, and we will always see more than he sees.) 

So this is one case where you don’t want to write what you know—don’t trust your own distorted memories of love and/or heartbreak, and instead think back to the relationships of your friends.  Which relationships did you root for, which ones infuriated you?  Which ones endangered your friends and which ones saved them?  Most importantly, how did you know that they were right for each other, maybe even before they did?

Whether your first draft is one huge love story or the romance is a minor element, you may be shocked to discover, once you’ve gotten some notes, that nobody sees what you see in the love interest. 

The reason that so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag movies down, is that the filmmakers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes.   As I described here, the entire massive seven-book, eight-movie “Harry Potter” juggernaut seriously falters because nowhere in all those mounds of franchise did Rowling or any of the screenwriters put in any “I understand you” scenes between Harry and Ginny.  She’s just “the girlfriend”.  

The revision is your chance to add that element of understanding, but it’s tricky.  Given that your hero starts off with afalse goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character who’s lecturing your hero from the beginning to adopt the right goal and philosophy, but then you risk drifting into another category of alienating character: Just as you don’t want a hero who just says no, likewise you don’t want a stick-in-the-mud love interest, such as the kind you find in Old School, and many other manchild comedies.  (These love interests also violate the rule that “People Only Want What They Want”.  At the end of the day, nobody really wants to save you except you, and maybe your close family)

Better “I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for the Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes you can establish that they understand each other before they even meet.  Ironically, we know the heroes in Friends with Benefits will bond because we see that they have a shared dislike of relationships.  And what could be more romantic than the song that drifts from Maurice Chavalier in the city to Jeanette MacDonald in the country in Love Me Tonight?

Just as when you have to occasionally check with your buddies to make sure you’re not blinded by love, only once you’ve gotten notes on your screenplay will you know how well your romance is playing.  Don’t be surprised if you have to give it a firmer foundation.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy MLK Day

Celebrate by speaking truth to power...

Sunday, January 20, 2013

NOW You Can Revise, Step 3: Build a Theme Tree

It’s very hard to worry about theme when you’re writing the first draft. Yes, you need to have a vague sense of what it all means, but you’ll never be able to make the plot and character motivations make sense if you’re constantly trying to say something profound.

In fact, you may have to allow the meaning of your story to change as you write it. You can’t force your characters to do things that they refuse to do. In the end, their actions may make a different point than you thought they were going to make. Whatever you do, don’t force them to act a certain way because you want to prove a point.

As you write the first draft, simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle your later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.

But wait, you say, isn’t that good? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.

Now that your story and characters are set, you should go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have, where are the heroes when they get the big news, which blunt object is used for the killing, etc.

I’ve discussed before the way that a masterpiece like High and Low finds all sorts of ways to weave the the idea of high vs. low into every fiber of the story, but this is something that less ambitious movies should do as well.  Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This theme is explicitly stated by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
  • In the beginning, he’s trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but he now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
  • Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
These are all things that subtly make that point that we all do things that we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re not illegal.

I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since they aren’t essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, screenwriter David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to a making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole.  Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

Next: Strengthening the relationships...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

NOW You Can Revise, Step 2: Cut Ten More Pages Out

If you’re anything like me, your first drafts will be far too long, and then, as you begin to re-write them, they’ll get even longer, as you add the elements that are needed. But the hope is that, once you’ve expanded these things enough, they’ll begin to contract. If you can create a new scene that makes the character’s flaw poignantly palpable in half-a-page, then you can eliminate those ten pages that merely implied the flaw. As you clarify things, then hopefully the less-clear pages will start to just fall away.

But even after that process is done, you still might end up overlength. Script-readers are overburdened, and the shortest scripts get read first. Everything you send out has to be lean, lean, lean. In fact, I would guess that the most common note writers get from their agents is this, “I love it, don’t change a thing, just cut out ten pages!” But how on earth are you supposed to cut pages without changing the story?? Well, there are some ways…

I mentioned one trick while discussing Easy Living, which was written by the great Preston Sturges: Cut out the middle of scenes. In one scene, we see Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold start to argue about compound interest in the back of a car, then we cut to an exterior shot of the car crossing town, then jump forward to them getting out of the car once the argument has reached a crescendo. Later on, Arthur walks into work wearing her new mink and eyebrows are raised, so then we jump inside the boss’s office as she’s already halfway through trying to explain how she got it.

In each case, Sturges uses a cut to from outside to inside to hide the excision. The same trick was used when they decided they had to cut a line out of Chinatown: the fact that the conversation moved out of the office hid the fact that part of the conversation was missing.

But you can also cut chunks out of the middle of scenes even without cutting away from the space you’re in. If you’ve got multiple conversations going on, you can hide time jumps every time you cut back and forth between them. The 40 Year Old Virgin cuts between four guys who are speed-dating, and manages to compress an hour down to five minutes, without resorting to jump-cuts.

Other classic tricks include:
  • Try cutting out the first two lines and the last two lines of every scene, so that audiences hit the ground running each time and end on a question that propels them forward.
  • Go through every scene and ask yourself, “If I cut this scene entirely, would anyone miss it?
  • Look for places where two crises happen back to back and ask yourself “what if these two crises hit at the same time in the same scene?” This is also a great way to keep the audience from getting ahead of you. They’re playing checkers so you have to play chess.
Next, let’s strengthen the theme…

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NOW You Can Revise, Introduction: When It’s Finally Time to Fine Tune

My previous series, “How To Re-Write” began with the admonition: “Don’t Revise, Re-Write!”. The first instinct of screenwriters is to finish a first draft and then “tweak it” every time you get notes, so I wanted make clear my position that the second draft should almost always be a complete re-write of the first. This might easily apply to the third and fourth drafts as well.

But, let’s face facts. Though I’m reluctant to admit it, in the end you do get to a place where you need to start tweaking, and that’s a whole different set of skills, so let’s talk about those in this series.

In the previous series, we looked at ways to overhaul your plot and characters. It’s important to tackle those changes first, before you waste any time refining the language or trimming individual scenes. After all, once those overhauls start to snowball, everything is going to change, and you don’t want to find that you’ve fallen in love with some well-polished scene that now has to go.

Buy by the time you’re actually ready to revise, the personality of the main characters and the general order of events are pretty much locked in. The changes you’re making here are less likely to snowball, so now you can start sharpening each plot point, punching up every line of dialogue, highlighting the theme, etc.

But you’re still going to be cutting scenes, cutting minor characters and/or combining them, and maybe even cutting out sub-plots. When doing so, it’s good to keep in mind...

Step 1: The Only Way Out is Through

As a general rule, it’s best to cut out anything that doesn’t move the story forward. Always interrupt your characters before they get a chance to apologize, skip over fallout scenes, and remove any repeated beats.

In The Fast and the Furious, Paul Walker infiltrates Vin Diesel’s gang and seduces his sister. Later, he has to dramatically confess to the sister, in the middle of a crisis, that he’s a cop. Sometimes afterwards, she reveals the secret to Diesel and his gang, but we never see that scene, despite the fact that it was presumably quite intense, because, for the audience, it would be a repeated beat.

What’s even more remarkable is that, even when they finally confront each other, Walker and Diesel don’t discuss the betrayal! That would be “fallout”, and the script doesn’t need it. The discussion at that end is entirely about whether Walker will arrest Diesel, without any “You betrayed me!” recriminations about the past. A great way to speed things up is to keep your characters talking about what’s going to happen, not what happened previously.  The audience won’t miss it.

Next, step 2: Cut ten more pages out...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #168: Sometimes Sympathy Can Trump Empathy

I love data!  I was going to move on to a new series, but I generated a big pile of new data last week, so I figured I should crunch it some more, and Im glad I did... 
I’ve said before that sympathy isn’t always necessary, but empathy is, and, generally speaking that’s true.  So how do you gain empathy?  Well, as I’ve said in the past, the hero should be misunderstood and surrounded by fairly rotten people, who subject the hero to undeserved humiliation.

But when I looked back at the four movie characters I covered last week, I noticed something interesting.  The first two characters, Cady in Mean Girls and Peter in Spider-Man, fit very nicely into the model I described above, but the next two, Max in Rushmore and Juno in Juno, did not.  Max and Juno aren’t really misunderstood: in fact, everyone around them can see their problems more clearly than they can.  Likewise, they aren’t really better than the people around them.

Before, when we did “Jerk Week”, we looked at five guys who were assholes, but were still better than the people around them in many ways, and they were very misunderstood.  As a result, we weren’t sympathetic to them, but we were empathetic.  But Max and Juno, I now realize, represent a totally different type of jerk: When they start out, we are sympathetic to them but we’re not empathetic. 

Max and Juno both have a lot of personality.  We are instantly plunged into their subjective world-views as soon as each movie begins: Rushmore starts off with a dream sequence and Juno with heavy voice-over.  They bombard us with their opinions: Max’s intellectual idealism and Juno’s witty snark.  And the degree to which these movie work is the degree to which we find them charming.  (Those who aren’t charmed tend to hate these movies.)

But for most viewers, these movies can forego the usual empathy-building tricks (misunderstood, bad parents, better than the people around them, etc.) because the characters are so sympathetic that less empathy is required, at least at first. 

From there, however, both movies tread a tricky path.  In each case, our sympathy intentionally decreases (our impression of Max goes from precocious to pretentious, while Juno’s misanthropy starts to curdle with too much exposure) as our empathy steadily grows.

But this leads us to another anomaly: the empathy is created in unexpected ways.  I’ve warned readers in the past that only unjust humiliations build empathy, while justified humiliations have the opposite effect, alienating us from the character.  But there’s a caveat: in the situations I was referring to before, such as the beginning of Iron Man 2, the hero thinks his humiliation is unjust and demands our empathy, which we’re unwilling to give.

But Rushmore and Juno show us a different kind of justified humiliation:  in these cases, the heroes are ready to hear and accept the criticism, making the humiliation especially painful.

Think of the scene where Juno accuses her stepmom of being lame for obsessing over dogs that she doesn’t even own, only to discover that her stepmom foregoes owning them only because Juno is allergic to them.  Or think of the scene where Max meets his teacher’s date and breaks down crying.  These are the right humiliations at the right time, and break through these heroes’ shell of cool, hitting them where it hurts.  Seeing that the heroes understand that they deserve this makes us feel intensely empathetic towards them.

So now we have two types of non-off-putting jerks: misunderstood misanthropes with bad parents and self-satisfied, too-clever-for-their-own-good kids who need to learn to turn off the charm and get real.  In each case, avoiding audience alienation is difficult but not impossible, if you know what you’re doing.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #167: Don't Make Them Say It

It’s an eternal conundrum: you have to reveal background information to the audience through dialogue, but you don’t want to force your characters to say things they wouldn’t actually say.  

Spider-Man pulls this off well. They don’t force Peter to say, “By the way, I’m an orphan, and here’s how my parents died…”  Instead, he talks about it the way a real orphan does: When Norman Osborn tells him, “Your parents must be very proud,” he humbly responds, “Well, I live with my aunt and uncle and they are proud.”  
This is how actual orphans talk.  They dance around the issue.  (Not coincidentally, this is how the character can get away with being so mopey without losing our sympathy: because he has some self respect.  We only pity him because he doesn’t ask for our pity.) Likewise, people in the CIA don’t say “I’m in the CIA”, they say “I work for the government.” People who go to Harvard often won’t say “I go to Harvard”, they’ll say “I go to a college in Boston.”  There are certain things that, for various reasons, people are reluctant to come right out and say.   

These evasions make for good dialogue, because one of two things will happen:  Either the other person pushes for a straight-up answer, which creates conflict, or the other person figures it out and accepts it, which clues in the audience that we’re supposed to figure it out too.  Luckly, we love that moment—where we get to figure out something unsaid.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s definitely possible to be too coy.  On the one hand, we all hate it when movies begin with a guy walking up to a girl and saying “So, sis, what’s going on?”, as if anyone says “sis”, but I hate “big house syndrome” even more.  You’ll find this in any Chekhov play, where all sorts of people live together in a big house with unclear relationships, and some are clearly friends of the family, but we don’t know which until some start sleeping with others.  I’m always so crazy trying to figure out what are all those people are doing there that I can’t follow the story.

But the Spider-Man example is a good middle-ground.  Peter says it in a way where he doesn’t have to say it, but we still get it. 
Even more amazing is “Game of Thrones”. The cast is incredibly large and out-Chekhov’s Chekhov with the complex relationships and backstories of everyone who lives in the two big castles, but the TV adapters somehow makes everything very clear very quickly, without a lot of awkward dialogue. (Although, come to think of it, even there, there might be a “so, Sis…” line between Lena Headey and her brother when they first appear.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The First 15 Minutes Project: Juno McGuff in Juno

Juno is halfway between Max and Cady: not desperate to fit in and willing to alienate everybody, but still pretty vulnerable and lost.

Re-watching this confirmed something I’d noticed before: the first ten minutes, with its wall-to-wall terrible hipster dialogue, is entirely different from the rest. As soon as the very grounded character of Bleeker is introduced, the sheer force of his reality obliterates all that phoniness, and most of the dialogue from there on out is beautifully written and real.

So why the atrocious beginning? One clue is to be found in the deleted scenes, where we learn that the atrocious first 10 minutes was actually 20 minutes that got cut way down. This implies that writer Diablo Cody was flailing around and finding her way, until the introduction of Bleeker forced her to settle down and discover that she actually could write if she suppressed her hipster instincts.

Ironically, I think that the script only sold because of that hipster dialogue at the beginning, which indicated to Hollywood that they had found “a fresh new voice” (Director Jason Reitman even says in the commentary that one of the lines he cut was the one that made him want to direct it.) Hollywood tried to buy a bad too-cool-for-school movie and accidentally ended up with a good one, because none of the buyers, thankfully, read beyond the first twenty pages.
  1. Onscreen title over black: Autumn 
  2. Juno stands in a yard looking at an easy boy chair on a lawn. A dog barks, making her say “Geez banana, shut your freaking gob, okay?” Voiceover: “This is the most magnificent discarded living room set I’ve ever seen. It all started with a chair…” 
  3. Flashback to Juno having awkward sex with an unseen kid her age in lazy-boy-style chair.
  4. Juno walks along the sidewalk drinking Sunny Delight, as a hipster-folk song kicks in and she walks through animated credits. 
  5. Animation ends as Juno enters a drugstore, exchanges hipster dialogue with the guy running the store. She’s there to have her third pregnancy test after not trusting the first two that were both positive. This one’s positive, too. “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.” She buys a several-foot long strip of Twizzlers.
  6. She goes home and turns it into a noose and throws the noose around the tree. 
  7. She calls her friend on a burger phone. “I’m pregnant.” “Honest to blog?” They discuss where she’ll get an abortion. Juno says she needs her help though…
  8. …Juno and her friend pick up that discarded chair. 
  9. They talk about Bleeker, intercut with a flash 
  10. Intro Bleeker montage getting ready for a run: putting deodorant on his thighs, making himself a hot pocket. 
  11. Bleeker comes out to find Juno sitting on his lawn in the living room set. Guys run by and she thinks about their pork swords. She tells Bleeker that she’s pregnant. He quietly freaks out and then says “What should we do?” She says she’s gonna “nip it in the bud.” Somewhat vulnerable, she asks “Is that okay with you?” He says yeah, disappointing her.
  12. At her locker, she gets heckled by a bully, but then she explains to us in voiceover that he really likes her. “Jocks like him always want freaky girls with horn-rimmed glasses, who, like, play the cello and read McSweeny’s and wanna be children’s librarians when they grow up. They just won’t admit it because they’re supposed to be into, like, the perfect cheerleaders, you know? Like Leah, who, incidentally, is into teachers.” She watches Leah flirt with a teacher and chuckles.
  13. In chemistry class, Juno and Bleeker are partners with another girl and guy who are going out and bickering (see: clones). “Well, there’s nothing like experimentin’.” “Who’s ready for some chromo-magnificence?” She tries joking around but Bleeker isn’t in the mood for jokes, disappointing her.
  14. At home, Juno uses her burger phone to call the number from an abortion ad in the back of a paper. “Hi, I’m just calling to procure a hasty abortion. Can you hold on just a second, I’m on my hamburger phone…” She has to shake the hamburger phone to get it to work. We find out it’s been two months already. 
  15. While talking, she imagines a teacher putting a condom on a banana. 
  16. Montage: she introduces us to her dad, step-mom, and absent mom.
  17. In the morning, she has breakfast with her family. Her step-mom accuses her of throwing up in her urn, correctly, as we seen in a quick flashback. 
  18. Juno arrives at the clinic to get an abortion. An acquaintance from school is protesting out in front. “Your baby probably has a beating heart, you know, and it can feel pain. And it has fingernails.” Juno turns, “Fingernails? Really?”
  19. Juno enters and checks in. She begins to imagine her fetus’s heartbeat. 
  20. Juno runs to her friend’s house. She wants to have the baby. They decide to look for adoption ads in the Penny-Saver. (actually at 21 minutes here). 
  21. Juno doesn’t like the ads, “I just like, I don’t want to give the baby to a couple that describes themselves as ‘wholesome’, I just want someone a little more edgier, I was thinking more like: graphic designer, mid-‘30s, with an Asian girlfriend who plays bass.” She picks a couple…

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The First 15 Minutes Project: Max Fischer in Rushmore

Our first three heroes just wanted to fit in and survive their dreaded high school experience. Now let’s look at someone who has no interest in fitting in or leaving high school.
  1. Sprightly harpsichord music plays while titles appear against curtains. 
  2. Curtains part, revealing Rushmore sign on side of school.
  3. Cut to math class inside school. Teacher assigns complex problem. A student asks about another problem on the side board. “That’s the hardest geometry problem in the world. I guess if anyone here could solve that problem, I’d see to it that everyone here would never have to open another text book for the rest of their lives.” They all whisper to each other about how awesome that would be, then turn back to a guy in the back of the room, the only one wearing the school blazer, who’s reading a newspaper. The teacher says “Max, would you care to try it?” Max looks over his paper, “I’m sorry, did someone say my name?” They all laugh. Sipping coffee out of a china cup, Max goes up the board. The teacher tosses him the chalk and he catches it heroically. Max solves the problem handily. The rest of the students lift him up on their shoulders while they cheer.
  4. Max is woken up by his friend Dirk, after having fallen asleep in the school’s chapel, where all the kids are gathered to hear a talk by Mr. Blume, the father of two students. “You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up, but I send my kids here, because the fact is that you guys go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore.” Max’s friend leans over to talk to him but Max holds up two fingers to stop him and then leans in to listen to the speech… “Now, to some of you, it doesn’t matter. You were born rich and you’re going to stay rich.” We see Blume’s speech, written out in front of him, neatly typed on a typewriter. “But here’s my advice to the rest of you. Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down.” Max writes in his a Hymnal, in florid penmanship: “Rushmore – best school in country, Rich kids – bad?, This guy – best chapel speaker I have ever seen.” Blume continues: “Just remember, they can buy anything, but they can’t buy backbone. Don’t let them forget that. Thank you.” Only Max stands up and applauds (once again, he’s the only one in the school blazer, so that was one true thing in the fantasy)
  5. Blume leaves, talking to the headmaster Dr. Guggenheim about how he wished the students gave a shit. Max come us and overly-familiarly says hi to Dr. Guggenheim, then introduces himself to Blume, trying to sound like a fellow-40-year-old when he says “Y’know I really think you’re right about Rushmore…”, then he leaves. Blume says to Guggenheim: “Sharp little guy.” Guggenheim responds: “He’s one of the worst students we’ve got.” Blume smiles.
  6. Funny montage of all the clubs Max has either founded or leads, including the bee keepers and the Max Fischer players.
  7. Another curtain says “September.” The curtain parts. Max is meeting with Dr. Guggenheim, who immediately tells him, “We’re putting you on what we call sudden death academic probation.” “And what does that entail?” “It entails that if you fail another class, you’ll be asked to leave Rushmore.” “In other words I’ll be expelled.” “That’s correct.” “Can I see some documentation on that?” Guggenheim hands over his transcript. “Too many extracurricular activities, Max, not enough studying.” “Dr. Guggenheim, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but the fact is that no matter how hard I try, I still might flunk another class. If that means that I have to stay on for a post-graduate year then so be it.” “We don’t offer a post-graduate year.” “Well, we don’t offer it yet.” “Just bring up the grades.” “You remember how I got into this school?” “Yes. You wrote a play.” “That’s right, second grade, a little one-act about Watergate.” The discuss how Max’s late mother got him in. Max asks if he can just coast by for old time’s sake, but Guggenheim says no.
  8. Max leaves, trailed by Dirk, saying they want to kick him out. What are you gonna do? “The only thing I can do. Try to pull some strings with the administration, I guess.” 
  9. Later, Max is at a meeting of his Backgammon club with its only other member. The member tells him that the school is ending Latin and Max is glad to hear it. Max is reading a Jacques Cousteau book as he plays. He sees that someone has hand-written in an extra Cousteau quote: “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” He excuses himself and asks to see a list of everyone who checked out the book. The priest-librarian asks why. Max shows him the quote. The librarian is impressed and agrees to help.
  10. Max has a listing in his hand. He arrives at a Kindergarten class and sees a beautiful woman reading “Kidnapped” to her class. He props open the door to hear her read in a beautiful English accent. He’s smitten.
  11. After school, Max tries to hit on Dirk’s mom.  When Dirk arrives, Max asks, “How’d your math test go?” “What math test?” “Didn’t you have a math test?” “No.” We realize that Max is only friends with Dirk to get to his mom.  Max runs over to talk to Blume, but he’s too smitten to say anything. Finally Blume asks “What’s the secret, Max? You seem to have it pretty figured out.” “Well, I think you’ve just got to find something you like to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.” Blume realizes that Max is actually pretty screwed up. Blume’s bully-ish sons come and get in the car, pushing Max over.
  12. Blume drives them home. “Did you invite that kid to your party?” “Max Fischer, are you kidding? There’s going to be girls there. Get your head out of your ass.” 
  13. Max walks home across campus, giving a friendly back-pat to the Indian janitor, Mr. Littlejean. 
  14. Max rides his bike to a barbershop. Only when his haircut is done do we realize that the barber is his dad. He shows his dad a test with a “37” on it, but the dad cheerily turns it into an 87. Max tries to talk about his problems, but his dad is too forgiving of his failings.
  15. The teacher is reading on the bleachers and looking for a light for her cigarette. He swoops in and lights it, then goes to the far end of the bleachers to read “The Powers that Be” by David Halberstam. He has a simulation of an adult conversation with her. She went to Harvard. The top schools that he wants to apply to are Oxford and the Sorbonne, but his safety’s Harvard. He mentions that the school is ending Latin and she says that that’s a shame.  They exchange Latin quotations. He charms her, introduces himself, then sits reading next to her.   She’s charmed and baffled.
  16. Max starts a petition drive to re-introduce Latin. Latin is now required for everyone. 
  17. Max watches a wrestling match featuring Blume’s sons. Max tells Mr. Blume that his father is a neurosurgeon. Later, he asks Blume, “You were in Vietnam if I’m not mistaken?” “Yeah.” “Were you in the shit?” “Yeah, I was in the shit.”  Blume is shocked to learn that Max is also on the team.
  18. At his sons’ birthday party, Blume tries to sink down to the bottom of the pool.
  19. Max shows up to tell the teacher that he restored Latin for her.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The First 15 Minutes Project: Peter Parker in Spider-Man

The structure of this movie is interesting. It starts us out with a hero with superficial teen problems (he’s too scrawny, gets bullied, and clams up around girls), then gives him a huge opportunity that seems to solve them all, and then, once, he accepts that opportunity, it reveals deeper personal problems he hadn’t suspected.

 So instead of “hero gets opportunity to solve longstanding personal problem”, we have the opposite: “hero gets opportunity that reveals heretofore hidden personal problems.” In the end, the only way to solve those problems will be to reject all the things he sought in the opening 15 minutes: the girl, the rich friend, and personal acclaim. As a result, as you’ll see here, a lot the hero’s true problems don’t emerge until around the 40 minute mark. 

I don’t know about you, but I fall totally in love with Peter as a character. I’ll have more to say about it soon…
  1. First line, over a pan out of a spider’s web: “Who am I? You sure you want to know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, somebody lied. But let me assure you, this, like any story worth telling, is all about a girl.” We see Mary Jane on a school bus, then see the jerk with his arm around her, “I’d like to tell you that’s me next to her,” then we pan to a slob eating a jelly donut, “Heck I’d even take him.” Then we pan to Peter running alongside the bus. “That’s me.” Mary Jan runs to the front of the bus and demands the bus driver stop.
  2.  Peter gets on the bus. A super-nerdy girl contemptuously looks at him and sees that he’s considering sitting next to her: “Don’t even think about it.” The donut-eating slob shakes his head no as well. Peter tries to catch the eye of Mary Jane, who averts her gaze, looking embarrassed, then someone trips Peter and he falls forward onto his face in the aisle, knocking his glasses off.
  3.  Class trip to Columbia University. Peter thinks he sees Mary Jane turning and giving him a flirtatious wave, so he returns it, but she’s waving to the girls who are coming up behind him. When they join up with MJ, they all giggle about Peter’s wave, humiliating him.
  4.  Just then, a Rolls Royce rolls up. Inside, Harry Osborn is being dropped off by his father Norman. Harry asks not to be dropped off “These are public school kids, I’m not showing up to a field trip in a Rolls.” “You want me to trade in my car for a Jetta just because you flunked out of every private school I ever sent you to?”
  5.  Harry gets out but forgets his bag, so Norman gets out to return it. Harry introduces Peter to Norman. “I read all your research on nanotechnology.” “And you understood it? Your parents must be very proud.” “Well, I live with my aunt and uncle and they are proud.”
  6. They enter the lab where a scientist gives them a tour of the genetically modified spiders, talking about their super-powers. Peter tries taking photos but the bullies keep knocking him in the back. Peter tells Harry that some spiders have the ability to change their color to blend into the background. Harry rolls his eyes and asks “Why would you even think I would want to know that?” Peter asks “Who wouldn’t?”
  7. Harry points at MJ and asks Peter if he’s going to talk to her now. Peter jokes, “Why don’t you talk to her?” Harry shrugs and says “All right.” Harry sidles up to her as she looks at spiders. She says, “Disgusting.” Harry: “Yeah, hateful little things.” She disagrees, “I love ‘em!” Harry: “Yeah, me too.” She shoots him a look of disgust for so obviously hitting on her. He busts out Peter’s line about the spider’s changing colors. MJ says “cool”. Peter overhears, chagrined. The scientist says that there are 15 spiders, but MJ points out that one is missing. Peter tries approaching MJ to take a photo for the school paper. She enjoys modeling for him. As he takes pictures, the missing spider climbs down and bites him. (at 10:56) Peter is worried about the bite. As he walks away, a display behind him shows spider DNA being combined.
  8. Meanwhile, at Oscorp, the military shows up to evaluate Norman Osborn’s weapons programs: a flying glider and a gas that makes you strong, though it’s driven some test subjects insane. The general tells Norman that he prefers Norman’s competitors, and if Norman doesn’t show results in a week, he’s pulling the contract. 
  9. Uncle Ben fixes a light bulb “And the lord said let there be light, and voila, there was light, all 40 glowing lights of it.” Aunt May says “God’ll be thrilled, just don’t fall on your ass.” “I’m already on my ass, May. When the plant’s senior electrician is laid off after 35 years, what else would you call it? I am on my ass.” “Hand me that dish, the green one.” “The corporation is downsizing the people and upsizing the profits.” “Oh Ben, you’ll get another job somewhere.” “Well, let’s look in the paper and see. Here are the want ads, what have we got here? Computer salesman, computer engineer, computer analyst… My lord, even the computers need analysts these days. I am 68 years old, I’m too old for computers, and beside I have a family to provide for.” “I love you and Peter loves you. You’re the most responsible man I’ve ever known. We’ve been down and out before, but somehow we survive.” Peter comes in, looking sick. He wants to go upstairs and not eat. “You won’t have a bite?” “No thanks, I had a bite…”
  10. Upstairs, we see Peter’s sickly chest as he looks at himself in the mirror. We hear a voice-over of the spider powers again, then we zoom into Peter’s blood as DNA re-combines. 
  11.  At Oscorp, the same scientist who complained to “If you just give me two weeks…” “Two weeks? In two weeks, we’ll have lost the contract request and Oscorp will be dead. Sometimes you’ve gotta do things yourself.” He tests the gas on himself. The other scientist stops the test. Norman, now super-strong and insane, kills the scientist.
  12. Peter wakes up on the floor and puts on his glasses, but he no longer needs them. Then he looks at his chest, which is now super strong. May knocks on the door. “Any better this morning? Any change?” “Yeah, big change!” Peter watches MJ out of his window and through her window.
  13. Peter leaves. Ben says “Teenagers, raging hormones, they never change…” Peter promises Uncle Ben that he’ll help him with painting the kitchen that night...

Tomorrow, a very different type of high-schooler...