The Theatrical Experience pt 2

Scott from Three Fingers Hold the Pen commented on my post about experiencing movies on the Big screen. Here's what he had to say:

Been preaching this for years.
These things are MEANT to be seen big.
I caught the Director's cut of Das Boot in LA that same year while working for Disney. Un-believable.
How did they get those dolly shots of the guys running down the length of the sub?
Went to every screening I could manage.
Saw Ben Hur one night at the Egyptian. Twenty Thousand Leagues at the El Capitan.
Actual Technicolor prints!
Lawrence of Arabia at the Cinerama Dome.
But the best was 25 years ago - a superb print of Midsummer Night's Dream, the old 39 version from Warner Bros, in one of the great grand old movie palaces...suddenly understood what it must have been like to go to the movies back then and why it was such a big deal and why The Movies became the Thing we revere today.
It is interesting how apple etc. can make a big sell out of movies that are meant to be seen big, on tiny screens( ipod, iphone, etc.) What is the attraction of Youtube? We (or rather those who don't know better) are being sold a bill of goods!

The problem with television and more so with video on Ipod and youtube is that we've altered the visual style of filmmaking to accommodate the smaller screen. If you look at the change in films in the last thirty years you'll notice that we've gotten closer and closer to the face. Scenes are designed more and more where we cut between closeups. Establishing shots have been truncated and the camera has studied the actors faces at close range. The size of the television and the advent of home video made filmmakers reconsider their visual style so it would have impact on the smaller, lower resolution screen. The internet compounds this with low resolution images that are often less than four inches wide.

What this amounts to is removing cinematic storytelling and makes us rely even more on talking heads. A contrasting example of this is the popular 1988 action classic 'Die Hard'. Pay attention to the lack of closeups in the film - it was designed for the theatre. The majority of the close ups in the film are from stomach to head where now we see the top of shoulders to the top of the head or closer. This is also due to the modern editing equipment where editors got used to looking at the images on small broadcast monitors which fool you into feeling that there isn't enough detail. With digital editing, you are much less inclined to take your workprint and project it in a theatre. Walter Murch understood this and he would place a size comparison by his monitor so he would always be aware of the theatrical exhibition.

High definition television has been a terrific invention and is starting to reverse some of these visual trends. With its much higher resolution it has allowed television filmmakers to think more cinematically. Just look at many of these new shows that look and feel much more like movies than traditional television - '24', 'Lost', 'Breaking Bad', 'Deadwood', etc. Even situation comedies like 'Malcolm in the Middle' got rid of the staged, three camera setup and replaced it with a single camera, four wall design.

Still, theatrical exhibition is the most powerful way to see a motion picture. It's too bad that the theatre exhibitors and studios are so paranoid about losing the market they are pushing carnival tricks like 3D movies. The filmmakers need to worry less about these quaint technical solutions and focus more on getting back to more cinemactic visual design - to experiment more and most of all, tell great stories.


Canadian Film Idea #22

Premise: The 'Marijuana Party of Canada' accidentally wins the election. Beating all odds, The Marijuana Party members remembered to vote and not only that, actually got off of the couch to go out to the polls.

**note to self** We don't have chads but we could find some similar hiccup in the election to make it legal (at least for a while).

Required Canadiana: Munchies... Lots of Canadian munchies - Old Dutch Potato Chips, timbits, beaver tails, french fries with vinegar (not freedom fries), poutine, smarties (etc)

**note to self** Lots of opportunities for sponsorship financing...

Possible Soundtrack: Stompin Tom (no brainer), The Rheostatics (god love em), The Tragically Hip, Bachman Turner Overdrive. **Neil Young? Joni Mitchell?** The Weakerthans. Celine? More financing? Lavine?

Favourite scene - When the 'boys' are arrested while visiting America on a trade mission. They don't even get off the tarmac before being taken by the FBI - in an homage to 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High' they open the doors to the Canadair jet and the abundant smoke wafts out of the fuselage. The arrest causes an international incident whereas the party leader, let's call him 'Riel MacDonald', tells the President and the world to 'chillax'.

Possible cast: Sean Penn as the President (round out the homage and add some irony)

Is there a part for Pam Anderson? Definately something for Meg and Jennifer Tilly. A 'Kids in the Hall' cameo - surely.

Dialogue notes: Copious use of the word 'dude'.

I think I might be on to something here.

I've used 26 dollars worth of Photoshop today.

Michael Ondaatje

My previous post got me thinking about Michael Ondaatje's poetic novel 'The English Patient'. This 'Canadian' book was adapted for the cinema by a British writer/director with American funding and starring a French actress and an English actor.

I love this passage from the novel.

"And all the names of the tribes, the nomads of faith who walked in the monotone of the desert and saw brightness and faith and colour. The way a stone or found metal box or bone can become loved and turn eternal in a prayer. Such glory of this country she enters now and becomes part of. We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography-to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk upon such an earth that had no maps.

I carried Katharine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds."

Culture Canada

Here in Canada there has been a lot of discussion about the proposed splitting of the Canadian Television Fund into a 'cultural' fund and an 'entertainment' fund. The fund consists of money from the Department of Canadian Heritage and the privately owned cable and satellite companies and it's mandate is to support home-grown television. Without such funding, it is believed that we will be totally overshadowed by American programming and in the face of such competition, Canadian television will cease to exist. The CRTC, the regulating body for Canadian television, radio and telecommunications, watch over the process to ensure that Canadian broadcasters show and support a percentage of home-made television.

The broadcasters cry foul as these home-made shows bring down their ratings and force them into showing 'cultural' programming. If they can split up the fund into culture and entertainment and they can control the 'entertainment' fund then they will have an opportunity to push their own agendas, as Alex Epstein states on his blog: "The hidden agenda here is that the "entertainment" subsidy will be media-giant-controlled rather than artist-driven, and will mean more fresh, original programming like CANADIAN IDOL, e.g. SURVIVOR: MUSKOKA and THE AMAZING CANADIAN RACE. Meanwhile the 'cultural' subsidy will only go to 'worthy programming' like ANNE OF GREEN GABLES remakes."

This whole idea of 'culture' has bothered me for years. Whenever applying for these cultural funds, Canadian filmmakers are subjected to some sort of bizarre scale of Canadian-ness. It's as if every story we have to tell involves stabbing a flag into the yard, running through the beaver infested wilderness, slapping a puck around or throwing rocks down the icey pond. And we can't forget about our characters' absolute loneliness in the face of our vast uninhabited landscape. Our beloved Bob and Doug Mackenzie were created out of this mentality. A confused Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis figured you couldn't lose if you put on a touque, said 'eh' all the time and drink copious amounts of beer. It's no wonder that Hollywood is stacked full of Canadian funny-guys who went south because their brand of 'culture' (aka entertainment) was too American. Their names include (and are not limited to) Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, Mike Meyers, Jim Carrey, Eugene Levy, John Candy and new talents like Seth Rogen. I'm not sure when our cultural watchdogs are going to realize that part of what makes Canadians unique is our wickedly subversive and ironic sense of humour. We can't help it, we inherited it from our British masters.

Our major networks have embraced a few family friendly comedies, 'Corner Gas' and 'Little Mosque on the Prairie' and Showcase fully embraced our seedier side in 'Trailer Park Boys'. The major networks only need look to the BBC to see how the British support their own culture with such sublime programming such as 'Peep Show', 'Coupling' (the adults version of 'Friends'), 'The Office', 'Extras' and 'The IT Crowd' to name a few. What makes these shows 'British'? Well, they are made by Brits (the actors even speak with British accents!). They aren't 'quaint' and they don't need to highlight tea and crumpits, Union Jacks or the Royal Family. They are a part of the British culture by being made by British artists and they are terrifically entertaining.

We need to shed this idea of 'culture' and just be. First and foremost, we are human. We share our stories of love, hate, kindness, anger, heroism, murder, greed, generosity, fear, anticipation, life and death. When I've fallen in love it had nothing at all to do with my country. These are human experiences and sometimes they are affected by what is going on in the world around us but often they are not. Either way, that is what makes the story unique - our own experiences in our own little world, without borders. If I describe an experience to an American, he won't say "You asked her to marry you at the restaurant? On one knee! Wow, that is so Canadian". Our cultural watch dogs might ask us to change the location to hockey arena or a dog sled expedition in order to make it more 'Canadian' but that would be dishonest, stupid and have nothing at all to do with the real Canadian culture or individual experience.

The truth as I see it is that Americans and Canadians aren't all that different. Yes, there are fundamental differences in politics but in a real sense, we all share similar values and goals. Most people in the world share the same dreams - food, shelter, love, family, success and justice. These are the stories we should be allowed to tell. Our 'culture' will come out in the specific details of the telling of these stories. We don't need culture to be the focus of our experiences. We, as the writers of these stories, need to tell our stories. We need to share our experiences and be honest when we write. We, as Canadians, need to be less concerned about losing our culture. It's a silly discussion - we are who we are. If Americans were like us they would expel all of our funny people who are infesting their culture with Canadian irony and wit. We might just turn them pink after all...


The Theatrical Experience

I've been a big fan of the home theatre for many years and the industry's move to high definition plasma and lcd televisions is exciting. Having said that, nothing compares to seeing a film on the big screen.

I saw Wolfgang Petersen's 'Das Boot' on television yesterday and it transported me back to one of the best theatre experiences I've ever had. Ten years ago Petersen released a director's cut of his classic 1981 film. Originally conceived as a 282 minute mini series, it was cut down and released as a 149 minute feature and then given another theatrical release in 1997 as a 209 minute director's cut. The extended version added more characterization and depth of story and it also restored the picture and added a new soundtrack optimized for 5.1 surround sound.

I was at film school at the time and my good friend Vince and I decided we'd go to an afternoon matinee. I had to work that evening but the one o'clock start time made sure I wouldn't be late. I had no idea what I was in for!

I had seen the original theatrical version on Laser Disc (I know, I know) and was familiar with the story. I was not, however, familiar with spending four hours in a claustrophobic U-Boat being hunted by destroyers. The theatre was equipped with a huge screen and a superior sound system and Vince and I were held in terror for hours. Petersen's visual style employed tight shots and hand held camera work. With a screen that envelops most of your peripheral vision, you were transported into this vulnerable tin can. The tight compositions and cramped spaces enhanced the sense of claustrophobia and the fear of having no place to escape. All of this was punctuated by the new 5.1 sound track that emphasized every creak and groan the submarine would make. Every depth charge that exploded would rattle your clothing and those long moments of hearing that sonar ping getting faster and faster squeezed the breath out of your lungs. Everytime a depth charge would go off, all hell would break loose on screen and the camera would shake violently as the characters were thrown around like rag dolls or desperately held on for dear life. The darkness and scattered light would illuminate the sweaty submariners as their eyes would drift up towards the surface with extreme fear and anxiety.

In a word, it was brilliant. It was pure cinema, visceral and emotional, and by the time the credits rolled and I got onto the subway to go to work at the bookstore I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I have since lamented missing films in the theatre after I've seen them on the home theatre. I missed 'Master and Commander' in the theatre and when it came out on dvd I was disappointed. I love high seas adventures and the film was so beautifully made, the little screen did it no justice.

On the big screen everything is amplified. A subtle look by an actor can say more than any bit of dialogue. A beautifully composed wide shot is detailed and rich. I saw 'The Maltese Falcon' on the big screen after having seen it on the television numerous times. I laughed in places I hadn't before because Bogart and Astor were making such great subtle gestures that were lost on a television. In 'Apocalypse Now' Kurtz's compound becomes even more surreal and frightening when you can see all of the disembodied heads and all of the details of the art direction. On the small screen these are all spots on the screen. The bigger screen is like turning the sound up - it amplifies the visuals and your entire line of vision is concentrated on the flickering light in front of you. There is no refrigerator, closet door or sofa. There's no pause and no escape from what is in front of you.

When a movie works on the big screen there is nothing like it.


The Business of Screenwriting in Canada

The Legion of Decency has posted a frank and candid criticism of doing business in Canada. Suffice to say that most people in the film and television business have been used or abused in some form or another at some point in their career. There are many scoundrels who have left a path of unpaid invoices, poor working conditions, poor wages (pocketing your fair share), lack of benefits and sick days. It seems to come part and parcel in an industry like ours. Doesn't mean that you shouldn't do or say anything...

I have worked for some upstanding folks as well - they just don't seem to last as long.

(I had to look up the word benefits - I'd forgotten how to spell it)

Go have a gander and shake your fists.


More conversations with Mills


When I was doing ‘Tigga and Togga’, a musical show with no dialogue, the production manager laughed when she saw the writers credit come on screen. A twenty year veteran couldn’t understand that a show with no dialogue had to be written! Dialogue is overrated in film. When it’s sublime, it’s sublime. However, if you haven’t worked the film out on a structural or visual level, dialogue can often become a crutch.

I’ve often struggled with Martin Scorcese. He has made some great films without a doubt. But he’s also made films that have relied so heavily on voice overs. It works in Goodfellas but Casino seemed to be a mess. It’s as if he shot a four hour movie and then hit the edit suite with a pad of paper and a pencil and filled it all in.

I think Kaufman is alright but I find his stuff too intellectual. Like Wes Anderson, emotion seems to be an exercise - something you don’t want to get too close to or you might look foolish. They’re odd and strange but it doesn’t have much of a lasting effect on me.

One thing I’m hammering the students on is theme. For me, theme is so incredibly important and if you keep working your script on a thematic level, you’ll wade your way through the plot. Satisfy the theme of the story and you’ll come up with an appropriate ending.

Thoughts on Mamet?


Mamet's great for character - his dialogue can become great when it is delivered from the mouth of an accomplished performer - the slightest hesitation and it comes across like they're chewing on a plank of wood - and when that happens it reflects not just on the performer, who bears the brunt of the immediate audience reaction, but also inevitably on the writer because it makes their words sound stiff and hollow. Mamet can write poetry when he wants to and is not above writing dreck when he can get away with it - cast his shit with the best performers and he sings - why? It's not because of the famous Mamet dialogue - it's because he depicts human beings acting badly with each other and we love to watch that so long as we aren't directly in the line of fire. Emotional gladiatorial games. The intellectual exercises of Mamet's work hinge not on mind-fucks but on emotional manipulation - emotional sleight of hand - look over there - feel this - oh, by the way, I just stole your wallet, stole your heart and dropped your pants.

Of course visual storytelling requires writing. Truman Capote dismissed Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" saying: "That's not writing, that's typing." That has nothing to do with what I'm ranting about here but I've always loved that quote and can never say it without doing my own lamentable impersonation of Capote. But, I guess, it speaks to: "What is this craft called writing?" Jack Warner used to go crazy bug nuts when he would pass the writer's building on the lot and not hear a constant clacking coming from every window. Every writer has a tale similar to this: a spouse or boss passes the door of the office, looks in and sees the writer with their feet up staring at the wall. "What are you doing?", they ask, incredulous and suspicious of the writer's obvious lazy behaviour. The writer doesn't avert their gaze from that spot on the wall as they reply: "I'm writing." The work isn't words. The work certainly isn't words on paper. That's the GRIND. The work - the stuff that's really hard but we perversely enjoy it anyway - the real writing - happens in the head. Often the process of the GRIND brings this forth. Everyone has their own discipline, their own method, their own means of bringing what is inside to the outside in a form that others can see, read, share and (hopefully) understand. But quantity is not quality. One of the hallmarks of screenwriting is "less is more" - always strive to say what needs to be said with as few words as possible.

"The Charge Of The Light Brigade" with Errol Flynn is, perhaps aprocryphally, credited with the most expensive single (and profoundly short) line in a film script:

They charge.

I don't know who wrote the script for it and I'm too lazy to look it up right now but I do know this: they understood the vagaries and necessities of the industry and resisted the urge to indulge in purple prose.

They charge.

That's it. That's all they wrote. That's all they had to. The set up and the knowledge of history provides the reader with the means to imagine a scene far greater than anything the writer could commit to paper. It's a visual medium. But you don't write out all the pictures. It is always preferable to show and not tell. But - like the Far Side comics of Gary Larson - the best scenes are the ones crafted by the audience themselves. Eisenstein showed that with his practical application of montage, taking the same image of a person's face and cutting back and forth between wildly different scenes back to this same face with the same expression and the audience swore they saw changes in the expression - it was, of course, the audience themselves projecting their own emotions upon the face before them. Most comics consist of several panels and there is always amongst creators of graphic narrative a discussion about what goes on in the "gutter", in the space between the panels, that part of the page which is the graphic equivalent of Walter Murch's "blink of the eye", that part of the narrative that is filled in not by the author or illustrator but by the reader. In Larson's case his comics were almost entirely single panels - the "gutter" existed in the timeline of the action contained within the frame - what had just happened or what was just about to happen. It provided a conceptual form of humour that required the participation of the reader to imagine the "what was" or "what will be" - and by their own participation it made the humour more funny, it made a deeper connection, as if Larson was finding some magical way of connecting directly with what you yourself personally found to be most funny - and in fact all he did was open a door so your funny could step through and present itself.

I recommend Scott McCloud's books: "Understanding Comics" and "Reinventing Comics" - along with Will Eisner's "Comics and Sequential Art" and " Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative". They all deal primarily with comics and graphic narrative but are equally and incisively pertinent to narrative storytelling in film. They're not about drawing pictures - they're about telling stories with pictures - and they dig deeper into the process far more effectively than ANY book I've read about filmmaking.

Silent films are, by their very nature, more difficult to watch than sound films because they require our attention. You have to participate. You have to keep watching the screen to know what has happened, what is happening and what will happen next. Regardless of Eisenstein's montage we still bring ourselves to that viewing experience, filling in the blanks, sharing the emotions, enlarging them within us and lending an unconscious hand to the construction of the narrative playing out before our eyes. It can wear a person out. Early film going was an intense, entrancing and consuming experience - not dissimilar to what people are experiencing now in their virtual worlds as they navigate through endless "narratives" and experiences with social cues limited by startling yet still emerging technologies which require the active participation of the users.

Intellectual exploration is all well and good within any film, novel or theatrical experience - but it really only works when all the other crap is taken care of. Sit back, put your feet up, stare at the wall, don't work too hard, we'll do it all for you - and now we do the little dance of thought that we think is cool and hope you do too. Yeah - okay - but - couldn't you have just written an essay? Essays can be entertaining. Entertainment is generally defined as: "an agreeable occupation for the mind; a diversion; an amusement". On the surface this speaks of numbing or of some for of soporific - but look closer - "agreeable occupation" - the mind is not shut off, it is occupied, active, and the experience of this active mind is "agreeable". That, of course, doesn't mean that ALL films (or any other form of entertainment) have to be "happy" - many of us enjoy a good cry, or the rise of righteous anger, the catharsis of revenge, the empathetic connection with the suffering of others ---- others ---- that's what makes it entertainment.

Mel Brooks defined the difference between tragedy and comedy thusly:

"Tragedy is when you walk down the street and fall in a manhole. Comedy is when it happens to somebody else."

Any entertainment takes us outside of ourselves while at the same time engaging our mind to connect with that sense of "other". It can be done in words, song, dance, pictures, movement, comedy, tragedy, action, adventure, truth, fiction, people, animals - times and places may vary as required. It can be as simple as picking at a stubborn loose thread on the sleeve of your jacket. It can be as vast as the charge of a doomed army through a desolate mountain pass. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants.

Ideas exist within their own time. They have relevance. If they are really good ideas - or if we are sufficiently inept at evolving beyond them - ideas can live a long time. Emotions we carry with us - within us - for without them we cease to exist. Entertainments that draw emotions which cause thought have far more lasting and deeply effective power than the best written essay in the existence of the entire fucking universe. If I can tell you a story - that requires you to lend yourself to understanding it - which relates a tale of some "other" - who suffers and is changed, or effects change, by that suffering - it changes you. It changes you because it allows you to "feel" what another feels. Not just to see or understand or hear or read or touch. To feel. That changes you. And that's what a writer does. Write with pictures, write with words, write with sound, write with food, write with touch or taste or smell or light or crappy little terra cotta figurines that end up selling for 10¢ in a yard sale - doesn't matter what the medium is - the fundamental notion of narrative remains the same: tell a story - make a connection - with emotion - make a change.

This is a tired old saw but I love it to much to leave it alone:

Act One: Put your hero in a tree.

Act Two: Throw rocks at your hero.

Act Three: Get your hero out of the tree.

Drape that fucking tree with as much intellectual bullshit as you want - prune that fucking tree within an inch of its life so anyone who looks at it says: "That's a tree?" - dig the fucking tree up, turn it upside down and bury it so the roots are sticking up in the air - set fire to the fucking tree - blow it up - borrow Rambo's 50mm bad ass weaponry and splatter that fucking tree all to hell and gone - just be sure to get he hero out of the tree - cuz the hero is the audience. That doesn't mean they get a happy ending or even have to intellectually understand why everyone was so pissed off with the tree they decided to climb - just be sure to get them out of the tree - set them down someplace else.

And I love Scorcese but I consider every one of his films to be a "schoon". Thelma made 'em. The true author of his films is Thelma Shoonmaker. So there. And Bogdanovich was nothing without his Polly.

And you are absolutely correct about theme - it doesn't have to be "what the film is about" - at least on the surface - the theme is what connects the audience to what is going on, the thread on the coat sleeve, the sign at the side of the road, the "line" of any good clean visual design - find the theme and the story drapes over it like a satin gown caressing Myrna Loy's ass. I won't apologize - I have my obsessions - but the point has been made. Once you pick a certain set of crayons to make your drawing with, the opportunities and reasons to use them present themselves. It can even be approached (in a less disciplined manner but relevant and legitimate nonetheless) an artsy fartsy manner of having a genre, having a structure, defining a theme and then "just let go" ------ (here's where you wave your arms over your head like a first grade theater student pretending to be a willow) ------ oooooh, look at me, I'm expressing my theme. No your not. You let the fucking theme express itself. All you have to do is recognize it when it shows itself - your job as a writer is to take dictation from the theme. It sounds flakey and it is and I don't mean to denigrate the obvious craft and hard work involved in structuring and beating the crap out of every fucking word in order to write the most perfect script in the world that someone else gets to piss all over, fuck up and claim as their own when it works. But hey - I'm on your side - theme - yes - and any theme is a set of recurring ideas or images or emotions that effectively speak together.


More chat with Mills (segue fever)

It started with the link from Mystery Man to the 15 Nominees for Worst Movie Dialogue Ever. It segued from there and now to here...


Jill Gollick sent me this link:

start at the bottom and work your way up

and as for bad lines:

my #1 vote is for the Andie MacDowell line in "Four Weddings" - but it wasn't a bad line - it was just HORRIBLY, PAINFULLY, and INEPTLY delivered - but it wasn't a bad line in and of itself


I’ve been teaching first year screenwriting and during one of the first classes I showed them similar scenes – one terrible, one great. I chose Attack of the Clones and Sideways…

ANAKIN and PADME stop at the balustrade. PADME looks out across the garden to the shimmering lake and the mountains rising beyond. ANAKIN looks at her silently.

When I was in Level Three, we used
to come here for school retreat.
See that island? We used to swim
there every day. I love the water.

I do too. I guess it comes from
growing up on a desert planet.

PADME becomes aware that ANAKIN is looking at her.

...We used to lie on the sand and
let the sun dry us... and try to
guess the names of the birds

I don’t like sand. It’s coarse
and rough and irritating, and it
gets everywhere. Not like here.
Here everything’s soft... and

He touches her arm. PADME has become receptive to the way he looks at her but is nervous.

There was a very old man who lived
on the island. He used to make
glass out of sand - and vases and
necklaces out of the glass. They
were magical.

(looks into her eyes)
Everything here is magical.

You could look into the glass and
see the water. The way it ripples
and moves. It looked so real...
but it wasn’t.

Sometimes, when you believe
something to be real, it becomes
real. Real enough, anyway...

They look into each other's eyes. He touches her chin.

I used to think if you looked too
deeply into glass, you would
lose yourself.

I think it's true...

ANAKIN kisses PADME. She doesn't resist. She comes to her senses and pulls away.

I shouldn't have done that.

I'm sorry. When I'm around you,
my mind is no longer my own.

It's the situation... the stress...

He looks at her.

...the view.

Against Sideways. Interesting that the scene ends different in the film. Rewritten or improvised…

Can I ask you a personal question?

(bracing himself)

Why are you so into Pinot? It's like
a thing with you.

Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question.
He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.

I don't know. It's a hard grape to
grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned,
temperamental, ripens early. It's
not a survivor like Cabernet that
can grow anywhere and thrive even
when neglected. Pinot needs constant
care and attention and in fact can
only grow in specific little tucked-
away corners of the world. And only
the most patient and nurturing growers
can do it really, can tap into Pinot's
most fragile, delicate qualities.
Only when someone has taken the time
to truly understand its potential
can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest
expression. And when that happens,
its flavors are the most haunting
and brilliant and subtle and thrilling
and ancient on the planet.

Maya has found this answer revealing and moving.

I mean, Cabernets can be powerful
and exalting, but they seem prosaic
to me for some reason. By comparison.
How about you?

What about me?

I don't know. Why are you into wine?

I suppose I got really into wine
originally through my ex-husband. He
had a big, kind of show-off cellar.
But then I found out that I have a
really sharp palate, and the more I
drank, the more I liked what it made
me think about.

Yeah? Like what?

Like what a fraud he was.

Miles laughs.

No, but I do like to think about the
life of wine, how it's a living thing.
I like to think about what was going
on the year the grapes were growing,
how the sun was shining that summer
or if it rained... what the weather
was like. I think about all those
people who tended and picked the
grapes, and if it's an old wine, how
many of them must be dead by now. I
love how wine continues to evolve,
how every time I open a bottle it's
going to taste different than if I
had opened it on any other day.
Because a bottle of wine is actually
alive -- it's constantly evolving
and gaining complexity. That is,
until it peaks -- like your '61 --
and begins its steady, inevitable
decline. And it tastes so fucking

Now it is Miles's turn to be swept away. Maya's face tells
us the moment is right, but Miles remains frozen. He needs
another sign, and Maya is bold enough to offer it: reaches
out and places one hand atop his.

Bathroom over there?


Miles gets up and walks out. Maya sighs and gets and American
Spirit out of her purse.

Or this scene from The English Patient


Almásy is in the bath. Katharine, wearing his dressing gown,
pours in a jug of steaming water. Almásy leans over the rim
of the bath. He's sewing, carefully repairing the torn

I'm impressed you can sew.


You sew very badly.

You don't sew at all!

A woman should never learn to sew,
and if she can she should never
admit to it. Close your eyes.

That makes it harder still.

She pushes the sewing from his hands, then pours water over
his head, then begins to shampoo his hair.

Almásy is in heaven. The biggest smile we have seen from
him. She continues to massage his scalp.

When were you most happy?


When were you least happy?

(a beat)

Okay. And what do you love? Say

What do I love? I love rice
pudding, and water, the fish in it,
hedgehogs! The gardens at our house
in Freshwater - all my secret

She rinses his scalp, then slips off the robe and CLIMBS IN
BESIDE HIM, covering his neck and shoulders in kisses.

What else?

Marmite - addicted! Baths - not
with other people! Islands. Your
handwriting. I could go on all
(a beat)
My husband. Almásy nods.

What do you hate most?

A lie. What do you hate most?

Ownership. Being owned. When you
leave, you should forget me.

She freezes, pulls herself away, out of the bath, looks at
him, then SLAPS HIM VERY HARD across the face.

She picks up her dress, the thread and needle dangling from
it, and walks, dripping, out of the room.



You bastard!

You send me an email and my mind wrings itself into knots.

Thank you.

Not entirely apropos - nor rendered in purely accurate script form - but here's a few to consider:



HAROLD begins humming the "Love Waltz".

This way, m'lady.

And champagne.

(imitating her)
It's all right. It's organic.

Oh, Harold.
(fluttery laugh)

For you.

He puts a tiny ring box on the table.

... which I hope will make you very happy.

Oh, I am happy, Harold. Ecstatically happy.
I couldn't imagine a lovelier farewell.


Why yes. It's my eightieth birthday.

But you're not going anywhere, are you?

Oh yes, dear. I took the pills an hour ago.
I should be gone by midnight.

And then there's Robert Towne's sublimely simple scene in the bathroom between EVELYN MULWRAY and JAKE GITTES where she's tending his cut nose and he sees the flaw in her iris --- or any scene between Warren Beatty and any of his female co-stars in Towne's "Shampoo" --- or the scene between MAX and his wife LOUISE in Paddy Chayevsky's "Network" which I won't re-write here because there just isn't enough fucking room in the entire internet for paragraphs that long and I'm tired and, frankly, not that frickin' obsessive (although I used to be) but it's a great scene and it concludes with:

You're in for some dreadful grief, Max.

I know.

and then:

There's the scene in "It's A Wonderful Life" where Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey finally gives in to his love of Donna Reed as Mary - it's a perverse scene wrought from anger and denial and emotional violence and it's all played out in a close two shot - just great stuff.

What else?

ANY SCENE from James Goldman's "The Lion In Winter"


ANY SCENE from Anthony Minghella's "Truly Madly Deeply" - God I love that film.

Of course Shakespeare counts too but as far as American cinema, and wanting to find love scenes that work or don't, some of the best don't have dialogue at all - or they result from a cumulative effect --> the love scenes in Casablanca were sooooo hackneyed - but were presented within the aura of romantic remembrance (abetted by the bourbon and champagne) which allowed the restrained glibness of later scenes to exist in their own pools of deeper richer meanings.

It's ALWAYS what is left unsaid - a simple gesture - a horribly flawed film like John Avildsen's "Slow Dancing In The Big City" with Paul Sorvino and the eternally delicious Anne Ditchburn was just one big clusterfuck from the get-go - but there was one little scene - one little shot (didn't save the film) where Sorvino escorts Ditchburn and "almost" puts his arm around her - a brief visual hesitation - and the whole audience moaned with empathy ... after that the moans were more painful and deservedly so.

Soooo many cathartic love scenes are actually small pantomimes played out against "meaningful" popular song - "An Officer & A Gentleman" springs (if not slaps) suddenly to mind as an example. The propensity to use music and song, especially already popularized songs, as a crutch upon which to lean a haggard excuse for a story and lack of character has always been the bane of my movie-going existence.

That last bit pushed a memory to the fore of a made-for-TV adaptation of John Updike's "Rabbit" stories, entitled "Too Far To Go" with Blythe Danner (don't get me started, I just simply have always lusted after her) and Michael Moriarity (who was never better than in "Report To The Commissioner") and the resounding simplicity of the scenes between them as their marriage slowly dissolved over time and they watched their love ebb away even as they gained a greater appreciation for what it was. Remarkable. I don't know who wrote the adaptation - I'll have to look it up now. Damn you - you make me busy.

We remember lines of dialogue because that is what we can most easily recall and recreate. We can embrace them and use them in our definitions of ourselves. We can recite them and play them out before our friends and co-workers. The gestures - the looks - the physical moments - those are more difficult to recreate or carry with us for a quick display in any social situation .... but those are what dig in the deepest - the linking of bodies - the fervid almost touching of lips - the dance between lovers - the look upon their faces - the shots cutting between the propellers of the plane starting up on the tarmac and the quick desperate glances between Ilsa and Rick. The love scenes of film - as experienced and as remembered - are not restricted to the words spoken.

In Coppola's "The Conversation" the spoken dialogue between the young troubled lovers pacing through the supposed anonymity of Ghirardelli Square is touching. Context changes that. Later it becomes sinister. It's still a love scene.

"We'll always have Paris." - means nothing without the unfolding of the previous scenes between Rick and Ilsa - and the references between other characters in other prior scenes which serve to further define and enhance our awareness of their characters and relationship - before those words, those classic words, are ultimately, inevitably, spoken. On their own - they mean nothing.

"And with a kiss - I die." - carries volumes of meaning beyond the simple scenes played before it by Romeo and Juliet and even more than what is conveyed in prior scenes within the play itself - and yet those words never fail to elicit the choked breath and sobs of the audience, regardless of how little of the full context those audience members bring to those words which pass through their ears and into their consciousness.

I'm pontificating now - I'll stop.

Too many films - too many wonderful scenes - "Philadelphia Story" - "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" - "Julia" - (the scenes between Hammett and Hellman) - there are too many individual moments to pick out - they gain their weight, their gravitas, their power from the context of what came before and what comes after. If the filmmaker betrays that contract with the viewer - then the moment, no matter how grandly constructed, loses all meaning.

Andie MacDowell - dear, sweet, sort-of pretty, far too content just being herself and knowing its the best thing in the existence of the universe, Andie MacDowell held the pulsing heart of "Four Weddings And A Funeral" in her grasp as she butchered it with her clumsy, uncomprehending, grip on the final conclusive line: "Is it raining? I hadn't noticed." A single line. A single fucking line! A line worthy of some of the greatest romantic films of all times. "An Affair To Remember" springs foremost to mind but it's more of a chick flick for my tastes and there I just shake my head and murmur de rigeur affection for an acknowledged classic. Regardless! A single fucking line! It could have destroyed the entire fucking thing. It is a testament to ALL that had gone before in the film that the audience actually stifled their groans, played along with the moment, felt even more sorry than before for poor dear sweet Hugh Grant (poor bastard, he actually has to end up with HER, oh my god) and then we all got to rejoice in the calculated emotions of the final credit sequence. Yay! Everything that occurred before the botched finale made up for, excused and otherwise obviated whatever abomination Ms. MacDowell could possibly have wrought with that one simple line of dialogue. She could have been barfing like Mister Creosote, whilst peeing blue flames and scorched dead baby debris and simultaneously fisting a young, wide eyed, piteously yelping, wee puppy - and the audience would still have enjoyed "the movie". Of course, her career would have been completely toasted and one wonders why the filmmakers didn't do us that one small favour - but I suppose we can't have everything.

Another theme to explore in your studies, Mark, would be Death Scenes.

The current Rambo film doesn't count because most of those are scripted as: SPLAT!

But I digress.


You can visit Rob at


The Third Man - Preface by Graham Greene

For all of the writers out there, here is Graham Greene's preface to his initial treatment for 'The Third Man'. I think there is something to be said for working things out in prose as it becomes an exercise in detail for the author. The characters are much more drawn out and robust and it makes the screenwriting process much easier as you've worked it out in more detail than you needed.

Here is the preface to 'The Third Man'.

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen. Like many love affairs it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places : Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica. Most novelists, I suppose, carry round in their heads or in their notebooks the first ideas for stories that have never come to be written. Sometimes one turns them over after many years and thinks regretfully that they would have been good once, in a time now dead. So years back, on the flap of an envelope, I had written an opening paragraph : 'I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.' I, no more than my hero, had pursued Harry, so when Sir Alexander Korda asked me to write a film for Carol Reed – to follow our Fallen Idol – I had nothing more to offer than this paragraph. Though Korda wanted a film about the four-power occupation of Vienna, he was prepared to let me pursue the tracks of Harry Lime.

To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere; and these seem to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium, but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one needs to draw on. The Third Man, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another.
On these treatments Carol Reed and I worked closely together, covering so many feet of carpet a day, acting scenes at each other. No third ever joined our conferences; so much value lies in the clear cut-and-thrust of argument between two people. To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film or a play; but The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.

Some of these changes have obvious superficial reasons. The choice of an American instead of an English star involved a number of alterations. For example, Mr Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objected to the name Rollo. The name had to be an absurd one, and the name Holley occurred to me when I remembered that figure of fun, the American poet Thomas Holley Chivers. An American, too, could hardly have been mistaken for the great English writer Dexter, whose literary character bore certain echoes of the gentle genius of Mr E. M. Forster. The confusion of identities would have been impossible, even if Carol Reed had not rightly objected to a rather far-fetched situation involving a great deal of explanation that increased the length of a film already far too long. Another minor point: in deference to American opinion a Rumanian was substituted for Cooler, since Mr Orson Welles' engagement had already supplied us with one American villain. (Incidentally, the popular line of dialogue concerning Swiss cuckoo clocks was written into the script by Mr Welles himself.)

One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right. I held the view that an entertainment of this kind was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending. Reed on his side felt that my ending —indeterminate though it was, with no words spoken — would strike the audience, who had just seen Harry die, as unpleasantly cynical. I admit I was only half convinced; I was afraid few people would wait in their seats during the girl's long walk from the graveside and that they would leave the cinema under the impression that the ending was as conventional as mine and more drawn-out. I had not given enough consideration to the mastery of Reed's direction, and at that stage, of course, we neither of us could have anticipated Reed's brilliant discovery of Mr Karas, the zither player.

The episode of the Russians kidnapping Anna (a perfectly possible incident in Vienna) was eliminated at a fairly late stage. It was not satisfactorily tied into the story, and it threatened to turn the film into a propagandist picture. We had no desire to move people's political emotions; we wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh.

Reality, in fact, was only a background to a fairy tale; none the less the story of the penicillin racket is based on a truth all the more grim because so many of the agents were more innocent than Joseph Harbin. The other day in London a surgeon took two friends to see the film. He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the war when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.