Friday, November 30, 2007

My Wet Hollywood Morning

The point is we were there and it was raining and we didn't melt. That was the point, and you can get more details by clicking the title of this posting. Now the cool part. The cool part was getting to meet Tom Mankiewicz who shares screenplay credit on a favorite Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever...
...and France Nuyen who was Liat in the 1958 film of South Pacific.
I also got to yell chants at the Thalberg building.
Hooray for Hollywood.

From South Pacific

The trailer for Diamonds Are Forever

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Big Time Deja Vu

From an episode of thirtysomething I wrote called Michael Writes A Story originally broadcast on April 9, 1989

I took your advice; read Nashiru on the art of management. He tells the story of two samurai warriors standing in the rain, swords out, each ready to strike. But neither of them moves. They just stand there in the storm, poised.


You tell me.

Because whoever moves first loses the advantage.

So they stand there getting soaked, accomplishing nothing. Stupid way to make a living, isn't it?

They stand there. Then:

Why don't the two of you come in and we'll have a more substantive discussion?

Sounds like a good idea.

It is.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Speechless Episode 1

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"We gather together..."

The pre-Thanksgiving rally and march of writers and their supporters on Hollywood Blvd. this afternoon.

If you go home some distance for Thanksgiving this week and find yourself in the company of people who don’t understand what the Writers Guild strike is all about, you can try to explain it to them or send them to the links at The WGA and for the nuts and bolts of it. But if someone asks you "Who do those greedy writers think they are?" tell them this:

We are the sons and daughters of parents who wanted us to do better than they did. We are the children of janitors and bank tellers, the legacy of parents who were lectured to by strangers about the dangers of indulging the dreams of their kids. We made them proud by not doing the sensible thing and mastering an intangible skill instead. I have repaid the debt to my father by making a better living than he did. I have repaid the debt to my mother by telling stories. We are the children of parents who taught us that things hard won are worth holding on to...and worth passing on to the next generation.

The corner of Hollywood and Cahuenga Boulevards...the site of Philip Marlowe's office

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Rise Again"

Beverly outside NBC last week

Among her many talents, Beverly Mickins bakes a damn good chocolate chip cookie. I married her for other reasons; the cookie ability was discovered later. She has baked treats for every writing staff I've been on and now she bakes cookies for the writers who are on the picket line with me. As industrious as she is, she can't bake a restorative chocolate chip cookie for every writer and supporter. So, at my urging, Beverly has recorded an audible cookie of encouragement: her version of the labor song Rise Again.
You can listen to the song by clicking the title at the top of this post. You're welcome to download it to your computer, burn it on a CD, import it to your iPod, and send the link to every writer or supporter you think would like to hear it.
It's our gift to everyone who's going through this with us.
Take Heart.

Rise Again
Vocals by Beverly Mickins
Guitar and Mandolin played by John O'Kennedy
Arranged by John O'Kennedy
Recorded and mixed by Barry Fasman
for Sanctuary Entertainment
presented by
Handwritten Theatre

Sunday, November 11, 2007


SAG member Holly Hunter on the picket line in support of the WGA

I hope you all enjoyed today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine which was all about me. Well, sort of about me. If you knew what you were looking for. I’m not talking about how the general theme of the issue, “Hollywood Goes West (Again),” is clearly a statement by the New York Times about how I’m supposed to be writing a Western pilot for NBC right now, but instead I spend my time standing on a street corner encouraging people to honk their horns as they drive past the network offices in order to disturb the executives who bought the project. Very nice of The Times to do that.

No, the real tribute to my career is deep within the issue itself, contained in this week’s fashion spread inspired by the Coen Brothers and the actors who’ve appeared in their movies.

Open the magazine on the dining room table to pages 76 and 77, or go online to

There you’ll see two pictures. On the left, a photograph of Holly Hunter, and on the right, a photograph of Jon Polito.

The only mistake the editors made is that these pictures are in the wrong order. Jon Polito was one of the first actors to perform something I wrote. He appeared in the Manhattan Theatre Club production of my play Digby in 1985, so his picture should appear before that of Holly Hunter, who is one of the most recent actors who has performed something I wrote. Holly Hunter plays the title character on Saving Grace, a series on TNT. I write for the show. Or did till the WGA strike started.

Two actors who bookend my work as a writer…to date. It would have been perfect if the magazine had been able to sandwich the picture of Julianne Moore on page 81 between the other two since I got to write for her between Jon and Holly and gave her one of my favorite lines: “Who died and made you Jiminy Cricket?” but, really, The Times did a great job and I don’t want to nit-pick.

My career as a writer was just getting started when the last Writers Guild strike happened. My writer’s affinity for structure had me worried that my career as a working writer could come to an end with this second strike… if things don’t come to a equitable conclusion (meaning a fair contract and protection of the rights and incomes of all writers now and in the future). The fact that these two labor actions feel very different to me, that the first one was laced with fear and acrimony and this one is charged with organization and resolve, didn’t do much to ease my anxiety at the fearful symmetry of the situation.

Which is why I’m so grateful to The New York Times for running those pictures today. They’ve wised me up and allowed me to see past the picket lines. Whatever happens with the strike (and we’re going to win and get a fair deal) the contract negotiations are not going to be the true measure of what I’ve been able to do. Those facing pictures of Jon Polito and Holly Hunter are the real bookends, in the sense that between them are all the words I’ve written for all the actors I’ve had the great good fortune to work with. It’s the work that I’ve done that counts. Not the machinations of studios, but the sweet intangible joy of having somebody tell a story I wrote. And, now that I think of it, The Times was right not to put Julianne between them. Just because Jon and Holly represent the landmarks of a twenty-year plus career, doesn’t mean there won’t be things beyond; words past the bookends. Why should a symbolic bookshelf be any more orderly than my real bookcases?

My thanks to Holly and Julianne and Jon and every actor who’s ever said anything I’ve written or walked through a door because I typed “enters.” If my pages have a legacy, it’s because you performed them.

How about we do some more? Soon.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Strike Radio Theatre: The Secret Tapes

Click the title of this post for shocking revelations that are no less shocking just because they're totally made up!

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Writers Guild of America is on strike.

An estimated five thousand people turned out for today's WGA rally at 20th Century-Fox Studios in Hollywood.

Since the Writers Guild of Ameria (the WGA) is on strike against the companies that control your news, I thought you might like another source of information.

Click the title of this post to go to the Official Writers Guild of America website and click play on the YouTube video below for a quick look at the real issues.

The author and his wife outside NBC in beautiful downtown Burbank.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What part of "no" don't you people understand?

Washington Post, August 31
Rob Zombie's 'Halloween': Reimagining Michael Myers
...musician-director Rob Zombie, whose reimagined "Halloween" opens Friday...

"So, you painted all the garden furniture."
"No, I re-imagined it."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Joe Gillis's Rules for Young Screenwriters: Forbidden Words Suplimental

Killer Movies, August 27th, 2007

Twentieth Century Fox has set Keanu Reeves to star in "The Day the Earth Stood Still," its re-imagining of the 1951 Robert Wise-directed sci-fi classic...

Hollywood Reporter, August 29, 2007

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is in negotiations to topline "Witch Mountain," Walt Disney Pictures' modern re-imagining of its classic 1975 adventure movie "Escape to Witch Mountain."

I'm going to make this very simple, and I'm only going to say it once: It's not re-imagining. It's re-making. If you're eating Monday night's meatloaf on Tuesday afternoon, you are eating leftovers. You are not re-imagining dinner.

Move on.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Joe Gillis's Rules for Young Screenwriters: Forbidden Words

A partial list of words that will no longer be permitted in meetings with development executives or in writing rooms.

Talent (as a pronoun).

Watch for updates.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Joe Gillis's Rules for Young Screenwriters

1. Do not mention specific pieces of popular music in your script.
As in “Plunky Nurdshifter’s cover of ‘Lost My Face’ booms as CLYDE rams the Vette into gear and tears off into the night.”

The motivation to do this is to somehow indicate that even if what’s going on isn’t interesting, the music will somehow get the audience believing it’s interesting by associating it with the music. Medically this is known as WB Disorder. There is no longer any WB , so we can drop this whole charade.

2. Do not introduce a character and then parenthetically evoke a current actor or celebrity with or without a modifier.
As in “CLYDE SLABCHEST (think Brad Pitt, only younger).”

You are being paid more money than your father made in his lifetime, take a shot at describing the bum without pasting somebody’s face on him.

3. Do not end sentences with ellipsis.
As in: “Clyde grabs Sally... The Car smashes into the room... The cheese arrives on a big tray...”

The ellipsis or “The three dots of action” as they are often called in screenwriting classes, are a bastard bit of typography. The intention here is to make the reading of your script a breathless rush of adventure, as if all the reheated action was so exciting the reader’s very eyeballs are pulled forward in a mad rush... When really a page full of ellipsis just looks likes somebody sneezed on it while drinking ink.
One of the original purposes of the ellipsis is to indicate something is missing, so the reader will be under the impression you removed something. Such as the story.

4. Do not refer to a character as “Hot.”
As in “SALLY CORNSTALK, 22 and Hot.” or, when in dialogue, “CLYDE: That Sally Cornstalk is hot.”

The word has become meaningless to all but the monosyllabic.

5. Do not use phrases such as “SUPER SLOW-MOTION” “SUPER FAST ZOOM”
As in “Clyde sneezes and we Super Fast Zoom into the snot particles and see them Microscopically in Super Slow Motion.”

This sort of caffeinated writing has been a problem for a long time, but has been exacerbated by the “CSI” effect. The idea is to distract the audience from the lack of actual content and is the filmic equivalent of befuddling a cat with tin foil at the end of a string.

6. Characters are no longer allowed to send text messages.
Because title cards went out with silent films. We now have sound and characters can talk to each other.

7. Character are no longer allowed to use the internet to advance the plot.
In the words of Raymond Chandler, “This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap.”

8. Graphic Novels are comic books.
Deal with it.

9. Starting today: Five year moratorium on making development deals with people based on their YouTube postings.
You got a new camera at Best Buys, that doesn’t make you Hitchcock.

10. In 2010 the median age of the population of America will be 39. The single largest demographic group will be men and women between the ages of 50 and 54.
Write accordingly.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Bernard Gordon 1918-2007

Bernard Gordon, blacklisted writer who led protest at Oscars, dies at 88

By Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Bernard Gordon, one of the younger screenwriters blacklisted during the McCarthy era whose proudest moment late in life was the protest he led against the honorary Oscar awarded director Elia Kazan, has died. He was 88.

Mr. Gordon, who wrote for years under a pseudonym but saw many of his film credits restored, died Friday at his Hollywood Hills home after a long battle with bone cancer, said his daughter, Ellen Gordon.

When Kazan stepped onstage in 1999 to accept an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, many in the audience withheld their applause. Outside, hundreds of demonstrators protested noisily, a result of the campaign Mr. Gordon helped orchestrate.

In 1952, Kazan had denounced colleagues as one-time communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Mr. Gordon had been subpoenaed to appear before the committee but never was called to testify. The exiled screenwriter was forced to work abroad and made more than 20 films, including writing the scripts for "The Thin Red Line" (1964) and "Battle of the Bulge" (1965).

"Some very, very prominent people had been affected by the depths of that campaign against Kazan. That was Bernie Gordon's handiwork, and he lived long enough to experience some vindication," said Patrick McGilligan, an author of "Tender Comrades," a 1997 book about the Hollywood blacklist that included a lengthy interview with Mr. Gordon.

Unable to find work because of the blacklist, Mr. Gordon became "the world's worst plastics salesman" in downtown Los Angeles, he said in 2000. His boss was Ray Marcus, a friend whose name he would use as an alias on several scripts. "Raymond T. Marcus" was his original credit on "Hellcats of the Navy" (1957), which starred Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy Davis.

Through a friend, Mr. Gordon met film producer Philip Yordan, who would become known for acting as a front for blacklisted colleagues. Mr. Gordon moved to France and then Spain to work for him from 1960 to 1973.

As a writer and producer, Mr. Gordon made such science-fiction classics as "The Day of the Triffids" (1962) and such big-screen spectacles as "El Cid" (1961) and "55 Days at Peking" (1963).

He was proudest of his films that had cult reputations, such as "Horror Express" (1973), McGilligan said.

Yordan often took the screen credit while Mr. Gordon wrote the scripts, but the arrangement allowed him to make movies, and $2,000 a week, in the 1960s.

"The living was good in Spain," Mr. Gordon recalled in "Tender Comrades." It led him to title his memoir "Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist" (2000).

Decades would pass before Mr. Gordon's achievements were acknowledged publicly as his by the Writers Guild of America.

As of 2000, 10 screenwriting credits had been restored to Mr. Gordon, more than any other writer, said Dave Robb, a journalist who covered Hollywood and became a friend of Mr. Gordon's.

"The action by the guild comes about 40 years too late to help my Hollywood career," Mr. Gordon told The New York Times in 1997 after seven credits had been restored. "I sure am angry at the way I was treated by all the major studios. They blacklisted me, and I couldn't get any work in this damn town."

Mr. Gordon was born Oct. 29, 1918, in New Britain, Conn., to William and Kitty Gordon, who were Jewish-Russian immigrants. His father ran a hardware store.

Growing up in New York, Mr. Gordon developed an early fascination with movies. He studied English and film at City College of New York, earning a bachelor's degree in 1937.

When he arrived in Los Angeles, Mr. Gordon had $16 in his pocket and got a job at Paramount as a script reader.

Active in the Screen Readers Guild, he served as its president and helped negotiate the organization's first contract with the film studios, according to "Tender Comrades."

Mr. Gordon joined the Communist Party at 22, when he was just getting his start in Hollywood.

It "was certainly not a path to success," Mr. Gordon wrote in his memoir. "Right or wrong, people were there because they were outraged about the existing woes and evils of the world and wanted to do something to correct them."

In 1946, he married Jean Lewin, a fellow activist. She died in 1995.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Few Moments with Mr. Wilder

One of the best examples of making sure every scene does as much work as it can is in an underrated film from Billy Wilder, written by Wilder, Charles Lederer and Wendell Myers. Spirit of St. Louis appears to be a straightforward Hollywood biography based on Charles Lindberg’s memoir of his solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927. It isn’t all that straightforward if you take the time to look at how the picture is structured. It starts in the hours before Lindberg’s take-off with a sleepless Jimmy Stewart playing the much younger pilot. Stewart thoughts, alone in a dark hotel room on Long Island, lead to flashbacks that dramatize biographical information leading up to the eventful flight. The flashbacks catch up with the “real time” of the movie close to the mid-point of the film and the second half becomes essentially a solo turn of Stewart alone in the cockpit of the tiny plane making history.

The beauty of this is that it admits the audience knows how the movie’s going to end. By starting with Lindberg on the eve of his flight the background can be sketched in through carefully selected scenes with huge chronological gaps between them. Start with barnstorming Lindberg, or Lindberg in the aircorp and you’ve committed yourself to convincingly depicted ten years, killing time till you catch up with the moment the audience came to see. It’s a much more inventive film than most people think.

But the particular moment that I want to point out comes at the half-way point, just before Lindberg is about to take-off. The expositional challenge is this: How do you explain to an audience the controls of an experimental aircraft and the important plot point of needing to keep the weight of the plane balanced by careful switching fuel tanks as the flight progresses?

You can’t, or you shouldn’t, have one of the designers tell Lindberg, “I know you’re an experienced pilot, Chuck, but let me tell you about these controls and even though you’re essentially one of the designers of this aircraft, I’m going to verbalize what you already know about maintaining trim by switching gas tanks.”

We need a surrogate. Someone as credibly ignorant as the audience. Wilder, Lederer and Myers’s solution is a pip.

The way The Spirit of St. Louis was designed, Lindberg needed a mirror in order to read the compass mounted over his head. But on the eve of the flight, with Lindberg standing in the hanger with a mechanic, they don’t have a mirror.

Stewart turns to the crowd waiting at the open hanger doors and asks, “Does anybody here have a mirror?”

A young girl steps forward and offers a small mirror from her purse. Then she asks if she can look inside the plane. Stewart says yes.

The girl sits in the cockpit and Stewart satisfies her curiosity by telling her (and us) about the controls and the need to switch the tanks.

Expositional job done.

She climbs out of the cockpit and starts back for the crowd. But Wilder isn't done. There’s value in this beyond exposition and they exploit it. Stewart asks the girl where she’s from. She tells him she’s from Boston. “You came all the way from Boston to Long Island? Why?” She smiles, “How else were you going to get the mirror?”

Then she turns and fades back into the crowd. Beautiful. The grace note of the scene, not only informs us to what this one man’s adventure meant to people, it erases any sense that she was just there for expositional convenience.

But wait, there's more.

Later, after Stewart has taken off and is headed across the sea alone, Wilder cuts to the girl on the train headed back to Boston. With Franz Waxman’s soaring music on the soundtrack she takes out her lipstick and reaches into her bag for her mirror. Then, remembering where the mirror is at that moment, she smiles and looks toward the rain streaked window.

A simple question of exposition. How do I get the information across in a credible, economical and primarily visual way. And, having found that answer, asking what else this solution can do for me.

In Them! the profession of an off-screen murder victim lets Ted Sherdeman bring the F.B.I. into the case faster. In Spirit of St. Louis the need to explain air plane controls and fuel tanks, leads to emotional resonance and a beautiful line of dialogue about bringing the mirror from Boston.

Wilder’s movies are filled with astonishing moments of expositional compression, flawless diamonds of information. There’s a moment in The Apartment (a movie that opens with expository narration indicating that sometimes there’s just no damn way around it) when Jack Lemmon’s Bud discovers Shirley Maclaine’s Fran is sleeping with Fred MacMurrey’s Mr. Shelldrake. We know Sheldrake’s been sleeping with Fran, but Bud doesn’t. He just knows Shelldrake has taken a woman to the apartment, that there was a fight and that the woman threw her compact at him, breaking the mirror, but he doesn’t know it was the woman he loves, elevator operator Fran Kubilick. Bud finds the compact with the broken mirror and returns it to Shelldrake. They have a moment of male bonding and you think the point of the scene is Shelldrake talking about how he lied to his mistress.

Only later when Fran offers Bud her mirror so he can get a look at himself in his new junior executive hat does the purpose of the compact become clear. Bud recognize the compact. We see his face reflected in the mirror, the crack running through his face. Nobody has to tell Bud anything. He instantly understands.

Here’s how that looked on the page:

Fran takes her compact out of her uniform pocket, opens it, hands it to Bud.


(examining himself in the mirror)
After all, this is a conservative firm—-I don’t want people to think I’m an entertainer—-

His voice trails off. There is something familiar about the cracked mirror of the compact—-and the fleur-de-lis pattern on the case confirms his suspicion. Fran notices the peculiar expression on his face.

What is it?

(with difficulty)
The mirror—-it’s broken.

I know. I like it this way—-makes me look the way I feel.

The phone has started to ring. Bud doesn’t hear it. He closes the compact, hands it to Fran.

Until next time:
"Shut up and deal."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Learning From Giant Ants (Conclusions)

Right about now you might be thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get it. But why Them! instead of, I don’t know, Citizen Kane or Sunset Blvd. maybe Psycho. Or Night at the Opera for crying out loud.”

Those would work. Matter of fact, trying this with a Hitchcock movie is very interesting; turning those complex visuals back into words. But I picked Them! for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a favorite of mine and a really good movie. Made by Warner Bros. in 1954 it came early the cycle of major studio monster movies and is one of the best. Them! contains no clichés, rather it is the first use of some of the basic building blocks that went on to become clichés in a hundred lesser films trying for the same audience and success. One of the most interesting things about Them! is that it derives its structure from outside the conventions of monster and science fiction movies. Them! is a police procedural in which the bad guys happen to be atomic mutated ants.

If you don’t know the picture, do yourself a favor and get acquainted. Take special note of the flowing logic of the first act, how the mystery in the desert is developed, how making the first victim a vacationing FBI agent effortlessly lets them bring the Feds into the case. This is the kind of solid, no-frills storytelling that looks easy, but is always the result of deliberate, economical choices of incident and character.

The film is a celebration of economy. The fate of the vacationing family is the event that starts the movie. It could have been any family, we only see the one little girl. But by making the father a vacationing F.B.I. agent, Sherdeman can collapse exposition and pull the Federal agency directly into the story. We’re introduced to Agent Graham after he’s visited the crime scene with Ben. We don’t have to go back there, only Graham does. The two men come in after a long day on the desert and we know Graham is up to speed without having to watch and listen to him finding out everything we already know. I’ve always admired the simple, elegant trick of making the first victim an F.B.I. agent.

I don’t know if the idea came from Sherdeman, or the producer (I know Director Gordon Douglas didn’t come on to the project until after the unexpected death of screen writer Sherdeman), but one way you can come up with a double-duty element in something of your own is by looking at each scene, each character, each event in a script and testing it in your mind. “I know it does what I want it to do, but can it do something else? Can it carry a little more of the load? Can it make my job a little easier down the line? This script don’t carry no passengers, so is this particular element chipping in for gas?”

A perfectly acceptably answer is: Yes. But every once in awhile you’ll find something that can take a little more stress, do some more hefty lifting, and, oddly enough, by doing more work, both jobs end up appearing more organic. Examples of that from a master, next time.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Learning From Giant Ants (Part Three)

Okay, Back to Ben and Ed and the abandoned trailer.

No, you don’t have to transcribe the entire movie…unless you want to. But keep the disk in the drive and shift gears. Let’s start breaking the movie down, turning it back into an outline, back into a document that will reveal the underlying structure of the work. Picking up where we left off, let’s do the next couple of scenes:

• Ben investigates the wrecked trailer. Signs of a violent struggle, blood soaked cloth. Money scattered on the floor. This was no robbery. Ben figures the dried blood must be ten, twelve hours old. He checks the rest of the trailer while Ed looks around outside. Ben finds a recently fired pistol and a piece of cloth that matches the little girl’s robe along with the jigsaw piece of the missing doll’s skull confirming whatever happened, the girl Ben and Ed found was there.

• Ben joins Ed outside. They talk about how the trailer doesn’t look like it was in a wreck, more like something pulled the wall out to get at whatever was inside. Ed’s found the ground scattered with sugar cubes. He shows Ben a curious print in the sand, maybe it’s the track of some animal, but it’s nothing either of them can recognize. They call in for an ambulance for the kid and crime scene support.

• Later. Crime lab guys show up along with medical support for the little girl who remains mute and unresponsive…until a weird sound is heard in the distance. A strange shreaky noise that draws the attention of Ben and the medic. For a moment, seen only by us, the little girl’s face opens in recognition and fear. The sound fades and she returns to her passive condition.

The little girl is transported to the hospital. Ben and Ed decide to check in with Gramp Johnson who owns a general store nearby.

• Major sand storm blowing up by the time Ben and Ed arrive at the Johnson store and find the place a complete wreck. Money in the till. No robbery here either. It looks like somebody’s been through the place with a tank. They find Gramps’ shotgun, snapped in two, then they find Gramps. He’s dead, dragged and thrown into the basement of the store close to a side wall that’s been pulled out just like the trailer. Nearby, an overturned barrel of sugar.

Ben wants to be at the hospital when the little girl wakes up. Ed offers to stay and grab a ride back with the crime lab boys.
Ben leaves Ed alone at the store.

Ed hears that strange noise, the one that reached the girl in the depth of her shock. He explores, gun drawn.

Ed goes around the side of the store. We lose sight of him. The sound grows louder, but not loud enough to drown out the sound of Ed screaming and firing his gun. Then nothing but wind and that weird noise.

• Next day. Chief’s office. Ben there, kicking himself over leaving the vanished Ed at the store. So far all they know is the name of the car and trailer owner, a man from Chicago. This case doesn’t make any sense. The violence, the destruction, only sugar taken. Maybe a maniac. But that doesn’t make sense either, not unless the psycho is armored like a battleship. And nobody knows what that print was found by the trailer. For Ben this is personal. Before Ben leaves, the chief gets confirmation on the identify of the car and trailer owner. The man was an F.B.I. agent on vacation with his wife and two kids. The Fed’s have got a stake in this case now.

• Following day. Ben and an FBI agent named Robert Graham return to the station after visiting the crime scenes. He’s been bringing the agent up to date. Graham asks to send the mystery print to Washington. The little girl is still mute and uncommunicative. The coroner comes in with the autopsy of Gramps Johnson. He could have died in any of five ways: His neck and back were broken, his chest was crushed, his skull was fractured…and there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.

• Days Later. Ben and Bob Graham are at an army airfield. Bob’s gotten a telegram from Washington: The Department of Agriculture is sending the “Doctors Medford” to New Mexico. Bob is to extend all cooperation possible. Does this mean the print’s been identified? Graham doesn’t know.

The Doctors Medford arrive: A distracted man in his seventies and his attractive young daughter, Patricia. No time for chit chat. The senior Dr. Medford wants to see all the reports and evidence immediately. Bob Graham wishes he’d gotten his suit pressed before meeting Patricia Medford.

• At the station, the two doctors go over the reports and evidence. They seem to have a theory they’re unwilling to share it with the two law enforcement officers. But with every clue and report, they grow more concerned. Dr. Medford asks about the first atomic bomb test and learns that it was in the same area as the recent crimes. Graham wants to cut to the chase, but Medford wants more information before he’s willing to articulate his theory. He wants to see the little girl. Ben tells him the girl’s not talking, but Medford still wants to see her.

• Ben and Graham take Medford and Patricia to the hospital where Dr. Medford passes a small glass of formic acid under the nose of the catatonic little girl. The smell gets through to her like nothing else has. The child screams one word: “Them!” then runs to the corner, crying hysterically. Medford asks to be taken to the desert immediately.

• Sand storm kicking up as Ben, Ed, Medford and Patricia arrive and start to search the area. Ben and Graham pressure the elderly professor; they’ve got five homicides and they want to know what Medford knows. But Medford refuses. Everything he says indicates there’s more going on here than murder. If he’s wrong, he tells the officer and agent, no harm. But if he’s right, and he’s getting more convinced of that with every moment, then something monstrous has happened in this desert.

While Ben and Graham are with Medford, Patricia is searching by herself when the desert is filled with that strange sound, the one that frightened the little girl and was heard before Ed Blackburn screamed outside of the general store.

A dark shape looms over a dune and Pat is confronted by a nightmare: An ant of monstrous proportions, fully nine feet in length.

Ben and Graham rescue Pat from the ant, killing it with machine gun fire. Dr. Meford explains this is what he was afraid of: An atomic mutation due to the first A-bomb test. The desert is filled with the stridulation of the giant insects. Medford wonders if this is the beginning of the end for mankind as the dominant species on the planet.

Continue in this fashion and you’ll end up with four or five pages representing the skeletal structure of the movie. It’s not a selling tool or a treatment, more of a raw schematic of the picture that lets you glimpse how and why things were put together, what the flow of information was between characters, how exposition is handled.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Learning From Giant Ants (Part Two)

Lately, I’ve been reading more and more scripts that appear to be written by people who haven’t read anything other than their own scripts in a very long time. Certainly not a book or a play or a short story. So the scripts are drifting back toward the technical, but it’s a sort of whiz-bang technical; an attempt to duplicate on the written page some effect they’ve seen somewhere else, something that is supposed to be cool. You see phrases like:

Super fast zoom back to reveal previous scene was reflected on the pupil of Larry’s left eye.

There’s also the pseudo-CSI writing:

Laszlo sneezes. SUPER SLO-MO of mucus sailing out of his mouth. FREEZE. The snot hanging in the air. ZOOM into phlegm. Molecules zipping by like hot little sports cars. Then the snaky entrails of the virus itself!

Both are desperate attempts to hold the attention of a twenty-five-year-old producer or studio executive who’s spent much of his formative years playing video games. And it often works. But don’t kid yourself that this is writing. It isn’t.

Don’t try to give more information on the page than the image can contain. This is one of the most irritating expositional sins, something that immediate reveals a writer’s lack of technique. I’ll show you what I’m talking about. Let’s go back to Ben and Ed the first time we see them in the patrol car.


In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call as SGT. BEN PETERSON, a fifteen-year-veteran riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN, picks up the handset of the unit’s radio.

I have read character encounters in produced scripts that read like this:

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call is SGT. BEN PETERSON (48), been on the force since he got back from the Pacific where he saw too much death and lost too many friends to ever let himself get close to anyone again, which accounts for his second divorce and the kids he never talks about, riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN (27), good-looking and a pistol with the ladies who just line up for Ed’s easy style and cool-as-a-cucumber masculinity. Ed, the son of the chief, who doesn’t want any special treatment, that’s why he’s glad to be partnered with the gruff and steady Ben, picks up the handset of the unit’s radio.

How we are supposed to get all this information from a shot of two guys in a car listening to the radio is beyond me. Maybe it’s written on the windshield with a magic marker.

All that stuff about Ben and Ed might be true, but I don’t want to be told about it. I want to see it. I want to intuit it from the way these two men act toward each other. I want to get a sense of it from the way Ben looks at the little girl, from how Ed gets out of the car at the trailer and how Ben watches the younger cop crossing to the car. This is a dramatic form. The things we need to know should be dramatized, organically and elegantly.

There is something worse than this sort of billboarding. That would go something like this:

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call is SGT. BEN PETERSON, riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN. Ben looks over at Ed.

We didn’t know what we were riding into, me and the kid. I figure I’d seen it all, between the war and fifteen years on the force, but nothing could have prepared me for what was going to happen. And Ed, he was green, but solid. He had the makings of a good cop. He could only manage to stay alive. I saw a lot of guys like Ed chopped up on those nameless islands in the Pacific. I like the kid. Didn’t want to get to close. That’s why I never went over for that homecooked meal. Bad idea to get too close. Way things worked out, wish I’d gone over to the house just once before...well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

Ben picks up the radio.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve used voice over exposition and I’m not proud of it. It should be avoided by any means at your disposal, and if you have to do it, do as little of it as possible, get past it as quick as you can and try never to do it again.

But wait, there’s even a worse way to do it:

In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call is SGT. BEN PETERSON, riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN. Ed turns to his left and looks into the camera, addressing us directly.

That’s my partner, Ben Masterson. Been on the force fifteen years. I’m lucky to have him as a partner. My name’s Ed Blackburn. My whole life the only thing I ever wanted to be was a cop. And not just because my dad was the chief. It was something I knew I had to do. Cathy, my wife, understands, but I don’t think she’s too happy about it...

And so on and so on in a similar fashion.

If you see this sort of stuff at the top of a script, locate the exits closest to your seat because you may have to bail out at a moment’s notice: The person at the controls is not a writer.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Reverse Engineering and Expository Compression Or: Learning From Giant Ants (Part One)

Raymond Chandler said trying to learn to write screenplays by looking at movies was like trying to learn architecture by looking at houses. He’s right from a technical standpoint, but I’d give him an argument on a philosophical level. I think you can learn a great deal about writing from watching a well-written, well-directed movie. You can learn even more if you take the time to analyze the work, to take it apart in a literary equivalent of what they call in the computer business “reverse engineering.” Take it apart to find out how it was put together. Chandler himself did this on occasion. If he found a novel that impressed him, he’d actually rewrite the book in order to get a better understanding of how it was constructed.

A screenplay is a vivid, present tense description of a movie. How can you get the feeling of what you see on the screen onto the page? What details make it come alive, what details get in the way?

The exercise I want to offer is less severe than Chandler’s, but comes from the same impulse.

Pick a movie you know well and admire. Any movie you love; you don’t have to justify the choice because this is only going to be between you and me. The only requirement is that you have to own a copy of the thing, a tape or a DVD.

The simplest way to do this is if you have a DVD player in your computer. Slap in the disk and open a fresh word processing document right next to the DVD window.

Start the movie and, based on what you see and hear, start writing the first scene.

Let’s take a shot at this together. I’ll just take down my DVD of Them! slip it into the disk drive and press play.



Ancient, twisted Joshua trees lean over us framing an unforgiving vista of shrubs and sand and a thousand square miles of nothing between us and the ragged mountains on the horizon. You couldn’t find a less hospitable stretch of real estate on the far side of the moon.

A drone, just barely audible over the wind. A fleck of light in the sky. A second and the drone becomes the sound of an engine and the fleck of light becomes a small plane. It banks over us, weaving back and forth in the sky, like a mother eagle looking for a lost chick.


Looking down at the plane, close enough to see NEW MEXICO STATE POLICE stenciled on the side of the fuselage, as it cuts across the baked landscape a few hundred feet below.

Down there a gray road cuts through the landscape. The patrol plane catches up with a dark car on the road below, headed in the same direction.


JOHNNY KELSO, the pilot in desert khaki and dark cap, picks up his radio and transmits.

301 to car Five W. Code one.


In the rolling patrol car for the last of Johnny’s hailing call as SGT. BEN PETERSON, a fifteen-year-veteran riding shotgun for his younger partner OFFICER ED BLACKBURN, picks up the handset of the unit’s radio.

Five W to 301. Go ahead Johnny.

JOHNNY (radio)
I think we’re chasing the wind, Ben. Maybe the guy who phoned in that report must have drunk his breakfast. We might as well call it…hey, wait a minute.

Ben looks up through the windshield at the circling plane.


The road stretches on to the horizon. The patrol plane banks over the road about a mile ahead of the car.


Johnny banks to get a clearer look at the desert below.


Flying over the desert and getting lower. Just sand and scrub for a moment, then something else, a small figure moving through the brutal landscape. We can’t get much detail, but it looks like a small child.


Johnny climbs as he passes the kid.


Ben and Ed listen to Johnny’s voice over the radio.

JOHNNY (radio)
It’s a kid all right. Maybe fifty yards off the road. I’ll keep circling her until you pick her up. Ten-Ten.

Ben pushes transmit on his handset.

Ten-Ten, Johnny.

Ben flicks his hand toward the plane. Ed leans on the gas.


Ground level, watching the patrol plane swoop low and head toward us. It flies by, taking us to the face of a nine-year-old GIRL walking through the desert in nightgown and robe, a doll in her arms. The doll’s head has been smashed, a section of plastic skull is missing. The girl doesn’t look up as the plane roars over her head. She doesn’t hear it. She doesn’t see it. Her expression is that of someone shocked into numbness.


The patrol car pulls over a few dozen yards from the girl. Ben is out of the passenger side before Ed has the car stopped.

He stands away from the car, cups his hands around his mouth, and shouts to the tiny figure marching through the sun-baked landscape.

Hey! Hey, honey! Hey, little girl!

She doesn’t stop. She just keeps walking. Ed is out of the car now and the two officers look at each other. This doesn’t feel right.

Ben starts across the sand, toward the little girl.


She keeps walking as Ben runs toward her.

BEN (calling)
Hey, wait a minute! What are you doing out here, honey?

Ben reaches her. Only when he gets down next to her and puts his hands on her shoulders does she stop her thoughtless progress. But she still looks straight ahead, beyond the horizon, never focusing on the face of the police officer.

Honey? What’s your name?

Nothing, no reply. Not even a sense that she can hear him. Ben’s concerned face: What the hell happened to this kid?

Who do you belong to?

Still no response. Ben passes his hand in front of the little girl’s eyes. She doesn’t blink.

Ben scoops the girl up into his arms and heads back to the unit, she doesn’t resist.


Ed watches his partner heading back to the car. The radio squawks. Ed opens the driver’s door and reaches in for the hand-set.

Car 5W to 301, go ahead Johnny.

JOHNNY (radio)
There’s a trailer about three miles ahead of you, pulled off to the side of the road. I didn’t see anybody around it. You better check it out. Ten-ten.

Okay, Johnny. Ten-ten

Ben reaches the passenger side and gently puts the girl on the front seat of the patrol car. Ed sees the blank look on the girl’s face.

What’s the matter with her?

I don’t know.


No, she’s not sunburned. She couldn’t have been out in the sun very long. Looks like she’s in shock.

Johnny spotted a car and trailer up ahead. Maybe she’s from there.

Maybe so.

Ben gets into the patrol car. The little girl is a mute bundle between the two officers. These men know how to handle crooks and drunks, but they’re pulled up short by how this literal babe in the wilderness has shut down, as if to protect herself from something. Ed puts the car into gear and the unit pulls away from us, heading down the dusty road.


The little girl leans against Ben’s side. Rocked by the motion of the car, her eyes flutter and close and she falls asleep against Ben’s sergeant’s strips and badge.

Ed and Ben look ahead.


Looking over the hood of the patrol car as it pulls up to fifty-feet of vacation trailer hooked to the back of a station wagon. No sign of life.


Ed pulls up to the station wagon. Ben moves to get out of the car, but Ed stops him.

No use waking her up unless there’s someone here who can identify her. I’ll check it.

Ed gets out of the car and starts toward the trailer.

Ben watches Ed advance, he shifts in his seat; ready to move if his partner needs him.

We stay by the patrol car and watch Ed pass the station wagon, his hand resting on his side arm, casual, but ready. He moves to the far side of the trailer. He stops. Looks at the side of the trailer we can’t see, then turns back to Ben and signals him to come over.

Ben gets out of the patrol car. He eases the little girl’s head onto the bench seat then starts to cross to Ed.


At Ben’s side as he approaches Ed.

What is it?

Have a look.

We see what Ben sees: The far side of the trailer is completely destroyed. Not crushed in, but pulled out. Personal belongings and furnishings are scattered around for a dozen yards and the skin of the trailer looks like it’s been peeled back by a giant can opener.

The two cops exchange looks, then Ben cautiously approaches the wreck and steps up into the trailer.

I’ve never read Ted Sherdeman’s shooting script for this movie, but since it was written in-house at Warner Bros. during the early fifties I assume it was much more technically oriented than my transcription. Since it was set for production, there would have been no reason to “sell” the script through the writing. Selling has now become a major function of a screenplay; selling the story to a director, a producer, a studio, an actor.

The great shift in screenplays over the past thirty years has been the move toward a more literary feel to the page, a sense that the reading of a script needs to be an emotional experience and not the unrolling of a technical document full of shots and angles and all sorts of paraphernalia that disrupt what John Gardner called “the contiguous dream” of the reading experience.

You’re still expected to logically describe what we’re seeing and hearing, but now you have to evoke a mood, a sense of the piece as well. Do it right and you can end up with something like the opening of James Cameron and Gale Hurd’s script for Aliens:



Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God...cold and remote.

You want to evoke a mood, a world, you want to economically present vivid characters worth investing in. But if you really needed me to tell you that, I don’t understand why you’re even thinking about this profession.

(to be continued)