Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: One Power-Packed Scene in Sunset Boulevard

I’m in the process of reposting the Checklist Roadtests with better formatting and rewritten for Checklist v5, along with new thoughts on the movies. The new Sunset Boulevard Checklist is up, so let’s look at  one amazing scene from the beginning which establishing six different necessary elements of a great story, all at once.

Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis is begging a Hollywood producer for work, so the producer (Mr. Sheldrake, a name that Wilder re-used later in The Apartment) calls in his assistant Betty to get the coverage on Joe’s latest script. She comes in to deliver it, not realizing that Joe himself is the other man in the room:
  • BETTY: Hello, Mr. Sheldrake. On that Bases Loaded. I covered it with a 2-page synopsis. (She holds it out) But I wouldn't bother.
  • SHELDRAKE: What's wrong with it?
  • BETTY: It's from hunger.
  • SHELDRAKE: Nothing for Ladd?
  • BETTY: Just a rehash of something that wasn't very good to begin with.
  • SHELDRAKE: I'm sure you’ll be glad to meet Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.
  • Betty turns towards Gillis, embarrassed.
  • SHELDRAKE: This is Miss Kramer.
  • BETTY: Schaefer. Betty Schaefer. And right now I wish I could crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.
  • GILLIS: If I could be of any help...
  • BETTY: I'm sorry, Mr. Gillis, but I just don't think it's any good. I found it flat and banal.
  • GILLIS: Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoesvsky?
  • SHELDRAKE: Name dropper.
  • BETTY: I just think pictures should say a little something.
  • GILLIS: Oh, you're one of the message kids. Just a story won't do. You'd have turned down Gone With the Wind.
  • SHELDRAKE: No, that was me. I said, Who wants to see a Civil War picture?
  • BETTY: Perhaps the reason I hated Bases Loaded is that I knew your name. I'd always heard you had some talent.
  • GILLIS: That was last year. This year I'm trying to earn a living.
So just in this one small exchange we get:
  • The hero’s longstanding personal problem (which he’s aware of): He’s broke and disrespected.
  • The hero’s internal flaw (which he’s not fully aware of yet): He’s lost his soul and sold out his talent.
  • The hero’s social humiliation: This scene shows the value of the unintentional humiliation. It’s always good to have less open antagonism in a story, so it’s great to have the hero find out what people really think about him accidentally without anybody having to directly confront him. (This is also a way to include the dreaded “Do you know what your problem is” scene in a non-grating way. She doesn’t want to tell him and he doesn’t want to hear, but it simply happens accidentally.)
  • An assurance that, even though he’s got big flaws, he still has enough skills to root for. He’s not just a loser. He’s got potential to live up to.
  • An early “I understand you” moment with the love interest: Usually this comes much later in the story, but sometimes it comes early and also serves as the social humiliation.
  • We even end on a false goal and false statement of philosophy! It’s tempting in these scenes to have the hero be humbled, admit to his flaws, and vow to change over the course of the story, but it’s always better if he tries to reject the criticism and double down on his flaws until much later in the story.
And the fact that all six of these are established in one scene demonstrates another rule: It would be so easy to have six different scenes to establish these six elements. The result would be a screenplay that was clearly too long, but hard to cut down because every element felt essential. The trick is always to hit multiple beats at the same time in one small scene and still feel effortless. As in so many other things, Wilder is the master.


Satia said...

Love this. Seriously great post! Not that you don't post good things usually but every now and again a particular post will strike me right between the eyes. This is one of those.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Off topic but hey, this is the internet and I'm bored and obnoxious:

The picture accompanying this post shows William Holden's pants hiked up to a hilarious altitude. In ye olden tymes, men almost always wore a jacket with suit pants. Pulling suit pants up high and buttoning the jacket made a man's legs look longer, a desired look. The jacket covered the ultra-high waist, preventing you from looking like a goober.

As so often happens, the habit of wearing pants with waistbands up crazy-high moved outside of its intended usage and became common practice, jacket or no.

Men of that generation who wore suits were used to their pants riding high. Which explains why, to men of later generations, "waistbands up to your nipples" was a classic old-man fashion trait. Not a universal one, of course, but widespread enough to be a cliche. When my friends and I were kids in the Eighties, we joked that our waistbands would inevitably rise with age; if we lived long enough, our belts would go over our heads.

Alas, with the passage of that generation so too passed the "pants too high" fashion. Kids of today have to make different old-man-fashion jokes. (Not sure what they are, because I'm old now too and I don't get to hear them. [Shakes fist at passing cloud, mutters about socialism and the degeneracy of hippey-hoppety music])

Also: Wilder's the best and Sunset Boulevard is a goddamned masterpiece and the book Conversations with Wilder is a tremendous read. I know you know, but I felt the need to say it.

Matt Bird said...

Also off-topic: One thing I had never realized until listening to the commentary is that Holden was a forgotten has-been when this movie came out. He had an auspicious debut with GOLDEN BOY in 1939, but he made nothing memorable in the next 12 years. Immediately after the success of this movie, of course, he appeared in tons of well-remembered movies (BORN YESTERDAY, STALAG 17, EXECUTIVE SUITE, SABRINA, PICNIC, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, etc) so it's easy to forget what a brave thing it was to pick him out of obscurity for this movie.

j.s. said...

Let's not forget THE WILD BUNCH, which was like the caper to his career after that great born-again you run mention.

Matt Bird said...

Oh sure, NETWORK too, I was just pointing out that the movies I listed all happened within five years of this one, which obscures the fact that this was daring casting.