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)