Tuesday, November 16, 2010

People Will Talk X – Whammos, Bumps, Hitchcock, Spielberg, James Bond, and Raiders of the Lost Ark

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



STEVEN SPIELBERG, aged 22, approaches the gate wearing a SUIT and carrying, judging by how he swings it, an empty VALISE.

Behind him, on the ground, is a discarded HAND-WRITTEN SIGN:


“Will direct for food.”


The FEET of a SUITED, UNCONSCIOUS, UNIVERSAL STUDIO EXECUTIVE (or minion of the Black Tower, depending on how you view it), poke out from the underbrush alongside the sign. 

In one of his books on screenwriting Syd Field told a story about his boss, Fouad Said, at the old mobile production studio, Cinemobile Systems. Fouad Said advocated writing script stories using what he called, the “whammo” approach. Whammos were basically just action sequences of scenes that culminated in an exciting, dramatic, or just entertaining payoff. He felt that if you had a good, fresh, and surprising bunch of these in a script with serviceable characters audiences could pull for, you couldn’t go wrong.

Screenwriter Richard Maibaum (numerous James Bond films, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang), said:

You know, Hitchcock once told me, “If I have thirteen bumps in a picture, I think I’ve got a picture.” A bump is something like someone says, “I’m looking for a man who has a short index finger,” and a totally unexpected guy says, “You mean like this?” That’s in The 39 Steps. After Dr. No (producers) Cubby (Broccoli), Harry (Saltzman), and myself decided that we weren’t going to be satisfied with thirteen bumps in a Bond story, we wanted thirty-nine.

Backstory 1, Edited by Patrick McGilligan, University of California Press, 1986, p. 287.

Sounds like Fouad’s “whammos” derive from Hitchcock’s “bumps.” Another way to look at this is to relate it to the Sequence Approach advocated by Paul Joseph Gulino in his excellent book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach.

One of the greatest whammo or bump movies of all time, of course, is Raiders of the Lost Ark. But one can see the approach developing and used to increasingly terrific effect in Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among others. All of them lead up to Raiders. And for those who would point out that Lawrence Kasdan wrote Raiders, so “how do [I] attribute the narrative approach to Spielberg?”, I suggest they read the transcript of the Raiders story conference between George Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan. Films, as always, are collaborations, and Spielberg merely amplified and crystallized ideas that were “in the air.” But his earlier work is clear evidence of this narrative approach brought to spectacular result in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post: 
If I have thirteen bumps in a picture, I think I’ve got a picture.
---Alfred Hitchcock to screenwriter, Richard Maibaum

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Studio Stories XIII: "Basically, I Refuse to be Suppressed"

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



Outside, the rain begins to slacken, and the clouds show signs of breaking.


               (watching behind 
                as she talks)
             They're merging with traffic.

She moves forward.

                  GINNIE (cont’d)
             Well? how do we lose them?

             Is there a lot of traffic 
             back there?

             It's not heavy, but there 
             are--hey, what are you 

He looks at her and grins.

             Open the window back there, 
             and let me know when they're 
             behind us in this lane.

He begins to slow the R.V. She moves to the back.


It moves through MEDIUM-LIGHT TRAFFIC. Eventually, it is about 100 yards behind the R.V., and no cars are between it and the R.V.


             Is no point in hangink beck. 
             Stay with them for now.

Valnya watches Ginnie opening the window of the R.V., and hanging out.

             Mushkin, what are they doing?

Mushkin squints ahead.

Ginnie suddenly holds a BOTTLE in her hand. With a twist of her wrist, she flips it on to the roadway. It smashes, littering the lane with glass.

The Russian car sidesteps it, causing another car to toot its horn.

Ginnie lets go with TWO more BOTTLES, one in the center, and one on the right lane. The Russian car dances around the glass again, this time sending a car off the road.

Mushkin yells at Khan, gesturing wildly.

Behind, one or two cars have punctured tires.


Some distance to the rear, the rest of the traffic begins to come upon the broken glass. The drivers panic, whipping crazily from lane to lane.

Among them are the Japanese couple on their Kawasakis. In total confusion, they dart to and fro avoiding accidents one after another, and chattering frantically to themselves in Japanese.

Other drivers shake their fists at them in anger.

Finally, they attempt to slow down and stop on the shoulder. As they do this, another MOTORCYCLIST shoots past them. He is a HELL’S ANGELS-type, complete with DENIM VEST and a CHOPPER.


The Japanese Man shakes his fist at him, and shouts in Japanese:

                  JAPANESE MAN
             Anata bakagete orokamono-me! 
             Anata wa kakujitsu ni korosa 
             reru! (You ridiculous fool! 
             You'll be killed for sure!)


Ahead of the Russian car, Ginnie now has THREE BOTTLES, which she deftly drops in each lane.

The Russian car begins to swerve, but it is impossible.
Khan realizes this, and too late, jams on the brakes. The car skids loudly toward the glass, slowing rapidly, but halting right on the worst patch.

Traffic is going crazy with horns and screaming drivers.
The front two Russian tires go BOOM-BOOM, and begin to lose air.

In the traffic mess, the motorcyclist is forced to lay his bike into a shoulder to avoid an accident.

Not a single car is smashed, though all come incredibly close. The effect is amazement.

The Russians just sit in their car, dejected.

Alexi looks at the horizontal motorcycle, then speaks quietly to Mushkin who nods, and Alexi races out, and up to the recovering biker, a good head and shoulders taller than he.

Taking him by surprise, Alexi shoves him away from the bike, and then leans down to pick it up.

The biker looks at him and smiles.

             Git yer hands off that chopper, 
             shrimp, or I'll drop ya.

Alexi smiles at him evilly, and then with blinding speed spins on one leg and karate-kicks the biker in the face, sending him to the shoulder.

Returning to the motorcycle, Alexi picks it up with effort, gets on, expertly starts it, and takes off after the R.V. The biker MOANS (OS).


Hal and Ginnie are jubilant.

They’re alone on the highway now, as all traffic behind was eliminated.


But far behind, and approaching rapidly is Alexi.
Also, a FREIGHT TRAIN is moving along to the right, paralleling the roadway.

Some distance ahead, the tracks pass under the road at a diagonal, and begin to parallel the road on the left side.
They have passed out of St. Louis, now, and are heading southwest on 1-44.

The R.V. gains on the train, and Alexi gains on the R.V.


             You saw them get at least 
             two flats? You're sure?

             Uh huh... positive, Hal.

             Then we did it!

Ginnie looks out the back.

             Hey, a motorcyclist got 
             through the mess back there!

Hal looks into the mirror, seeing the rider gaining fast. He stares hard.

             Hasn't got a helmet... 
             Heyyyyy, that's that little 
             guy, Alexi!



The R.V. steadily passes the train.

Suddenly, the rear window of the R.V. opens and Ginnie appears.
Alexi comes up from behind, closing rapidly.

Alexi holds the handlebar with the same hand in which he holds his stiletto.

Going from his knife, to his eyes, to the rear tires of the R.V., it’s clear he means to take out a tire.

The road begins to rise slightly as the Interstate passes over the railroad tracks via a LONG BRIDGE.

Ginnie tosses out a BOTTLE.

Alexi puts the bike around the glass.

They begin to move up the grade leading to the bridge itself. The train passes under, losing ground to them at the same time.

Ginnie tosses SEVERAL BOTTLES in succession, and Alexi slaloms around.

MORE BOTTLES are tossed, as they ascend higher. Alexi has his hands full.

He moves right behind, too close to lose a tire from a freshly-tossed bottle. Ginnie throws ONE at him, instead. It glances off, and he slows down fast, stunned.

Suddenly, as they near the crest, Ginnie dumps ALL of the BOTTLES remaining in the case across the pavement.

Alexi, having started to gain again, is forced to dodge wildly to his left. In so doing, he shoots off the road, just below the point where the BRIDGE RAIL begins, passes over the shoulder, into mid-air, and comes down--impossibly enough--on top of the moving train.

Equally impossibly, he stays up, and starts riding forward up the train on the tops of the cars, jumping the gaps between.

He is nearly out of his mind with fear, but manages to stay moving.


Ginnie sees this through the rear window.

             God, Hal, look!

Hal gapes at the sight.


Alexi, petrified to do anything other than stay up, continues forward.

Suddenly, a gaping chasm looms directly ahead--a flat car with two semitrailers head-to-head--and he shoots off the car he is on, sails through the air in an insane leap for the car beyond, and drops into the space between the semi-trailers.

In profile, the motorcycle drops between and pins or jams snugly in place.

Alexi has his eyes shut tight. Slowly, he opens them and sees his plight. Then something shifts, and he drops out of view.


Both Ginnie and Hal look away in silence. Hal drives on.

That is a scene from my very first screenplay, The MacGuffin (unproduced), a romantic comedy, sort of a combination spy spoof and road trip picture, with a dash of the buddy movie thrown in. It takes its inspiration--some would say it derives--from films like North by Northwest, Charade, Silver Streak, and Foul Play. But, in various ways, I tried to put a fresh spin on the genre.

But when I wrote that scene back in those pre-CGI days, I wrestled mightily with the ethics of writing something that asked a stunt rider to jump a motorcycle from car to car on top of a moving train. Who was I to compel someone to take such a risk? Ultimately I left the scene in because I was seeing stunts just as risky in films constantly, and I knew numerous professionals would be involved in the decision to go forward. But I’ve always wondered where (or if) I would draw the line with a story. Would I leave that to others, or would I censor my ideas before they even were written?

Scott, over at Screenwriting From Iowa, posted this quote from John Sayles:

If storytelling has a positive function it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and the people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to find a way to pass them on.
---John Sayles, Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan

“To…touch…other people’s lives…to see beyond our own experience.” But “touch” what? Falsity? “See” what? Lies? Hardly. Such a goal would be meaningless.

It’s been said in many different ways by many different people that stories are supposed to be true. After hearing this many times it has become clear to me that these folks don’t mean that they have to always be about, always tell, real truths. No. But they must be true to the universes in which they are set. In other words, within that world and its physical laws, anything can happen. Without that possibility always looming, the world, in effect, crumbles to nothing.

Many years ago, in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Edited by Chris Rodley, Faber and Faber, 1992, p. 158-9, writer-director David Cronenberg said:

When I write, I must not censor my own imagery or connections. I must not worry about what critics will say, what leftists will say, what environmentalists will say. I must ignore all that. If I listen to all those voices I will be paralyzed, because none of this can be resolved. I have to go back to the voice that spoke before all these structures were imposed on it, and let it speak these terrible truths. By being irresponsible I will be responsible.

People ask me, “Don’t you feel you have a huge responsibility because of the films you make? How can you bear the weight of that responsibility?” To them I say, “I’m carrying the weight of that responsibility very well. I think these films are good for people. They’re not bad for people.”

Some people say that movies tend to support or encourage a certain philosophy. But the movie doesn’t do anything. It just sits in the can. So, are we talking about the writer, the director or the producer? Who possesses the will behind this hypothetical movie that is saying—for example, in Dead Ringers—that misogyny is good, that I approve of it, partake in it? Where does that come from?

If it’s to be a true art form, it’s conceivable that the author himself, and the people making the film themselves, do not, in the process of making the film know exactly what the film is saying. They don’t know what the film is supporting or expressing. It’s in the process of making that you start to come to some understanding of (the film). Therefore, you cannot have a group of people searching amongst the entrails of a movie at mere script stage for its meaning, social significance, political correctness, etc. Ultimately, that’s bullshit. In perspective you might be able to say something truthful about it. But who has the balance, the magisterial cosmic perspective that he or she can look at a script and say, “This is irresponsible and must be suppressed”? What you get are little committees of scared, timid people who are fumbling around. If there was this Godlike person we agreed could arbitrate, OK. If someone would say to me, “David, I know you don’t think Dead Ringers is going to enhance misogyny in society but I, God, tell you that in the light of the next 2000 years it will,” then maybe I could submit to that arbitration. But basically, I refuse to be suppressed.

“Basically, I refuse to be suppressed.” 
But there are other scenes in The MacGuffin involving individuals who are racist . I wrote their words. And some are characters who are on the side of “the good guys.” One could conclude that their dialogue is advocated by the film-makers or the writer. Is that reasonable? Racists exist all around us. Does depicting them mean the writer is racist? Some black people use the “N” word in conversation with other black people. This is true. If a white writer has a black character using the “N” word in dialogue with another black character, is that white writer racist? And is such dialogue un-true because of the complexion of the writer? What if the offending speaker is white and he's talking to a black man? 
In another script, I once had a character beat a dog to death. It wasn’t graphic, and it was mostly off-screen, but it outraged some readers to the extent that they refused to read further. Since it was at the beginning, the script had no real chance to win them over yet. Had the killing occurred in the last act, when the story might have had them hooked, would they have dropped it as easily, or at all? That same script had several truly vicious murders done to people by other people. Those scenes never bothered anyone. But the antiseptic killing of an animal crossed these people’s line of acceptability. Why? Because the dog was innocent? Does that mean that people, all of us, are not? Does it mean that human characters are all and always fair game, potential victims? And does it mean that’s okay, indeed, to be expected, even reasonable? 
Are a character’s actions in a story evidence of anything by the writer? Is the writer tacitly guilty for simply conceiving such horrible acts? Is it cheap manipulation to so easily undercut and discredit an evil character by the inclusion of such acts even though they can, and do… and have actually… been done? 
Some would say, “Why even write stories about such acts?” preferring to read or view stories that involve no violence, and jeopardize no one. But aren’t stories, if they are to be worthwhile, supposed to matter? Aren’t they to inform us? Aren’t they supposed to be about the defining moments in life? And isn’t life filled with such possibilities, filled with such truths? Is it, then, true to confine one’s stories always and only to safe scenarios, harmless individuals, and only reasonable actions in worlds where nothing brutal, ugly, or final can ever, will ever, happen? # 
Lee A. Matthias
Quote of the Post:
Art is a lie which makes us realize the truth.
 ---Pablo Picasso

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What’s the Big Deal About Screenplay Format?

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



JACK KEROUAC types away at an old, decrepit typewriter.


He types “The End.”



Jack reaches behind the typewriter and tears the paper feeding into the carriage, then removes it.

He stands, walks around to the other side of the table and begins to roll up the paper he's typed on.

It’s a long sheet, TELETYPE PAPER, in fact, cobbled together from several shorter ones, all taped together.


He has it all rolled up, one large roll of paper. He ties it up with TWINE and shoves it into a BOX.


The title shows: “On The Road by Jack Kerouac”


An EDITORIAL ASSISTANT opens a large package, pulls out the huge roll of paper, looks at it a moment, shakes his head, and tosses it into a BIN marked “Submissions.”


“The Rest is History.”




The script has garish “DAYGLO” GREEN “leatherette” covers and is held together by THREE BRASS SCREW POSTS.

He glances at the letter, then shoves it aside. He shakes the envelope upside down. No SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope) falls out.

He opens the script and looks at the title page:



“An Original Screenplay by”

“John Q. Screenwriter”

“First Draft”

“Copyright 2007”

“Reg. WGA #9776512-bb”


He opens to the last page.


The page number shows as: “131”


He shakes his head and tosses the script, the letter, and the packaging into a BIN labeled “RECYCLING.”


“The Rest isn’t History”

So, what’s the big deal about script format? I mean, so what? As long as it’s in English and runs 90 to 110 pages (i.e., minutes; 2 hour lengths are now toast for spec scripts and newbs).

I admit, years ago I used to complain about it. I typed on a typewriter that had an Elite 12 pt. high typeface with 12 characters per inch, and I was damned if I was gonna go out and pay the going rate for an IBM Selectric with Pica 12 pt. high typeface with 10 characters per inch using the distinctive Courier font. Back then a Selectric cost many hundreds of dollars. Adjusted for inflation, it was well over $2,000 in today’s money.

I still complain about the stupid insistence on scripts being three-hole punched, but having TWO BRASS BRADS (and no more!!!). Or white card stock covers (nothing else!!!). Utterly Lilliputian!  (Jonathan) Swift’s egg-openers (Gulliver’s Travels)  may well be less anal; at least they believed they had good reasons for their positions: fewer broken yokes. Our screenwriting egg-openers (“two-bradders”) are all about fashion. It’s enough to start a war over. But I digress.

No, there are good and substantial reasons for the rules about format, particularly when it comes to font type and size, page count, and margins. It’s all about matching a standard so that budgets and running times can be consistently estimated. It forces everybody to “get on the same page,” so to speak.

My first script on that old Elite typeface typewriter came in at 118 pages, so I thought it was right on target (i.e., under 121). Much later, I decided to create an electronic copy, so I scanned it as an Adobe PDF document. Then I hit “Select All” and copy/pasted it into a Microsoft Word screenwriting template .doc file using Courier 12 pt. After cleaning up the result, I had a 148 page screenplay!

It was an epic comedy.  I thought, at 118 pages, it still might need some trimming, but, being epic, but under 120, it was good enough to show. Now, at 148, it needed a nuclear strike! Comedies, after all are generally in the 90 to 100 minute range. I had something approaching It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but written by Jack Newb (not Jack Kerouac). And they didn’t know Jack. Neither did I, apparently. For all you carpenters out there, it’s sort of like trying to build a house to code without using standard-cut dimensional lumber. It just don’t fit!

Bottom line: producers have almost no way of knowing you or your script. For the busiest, it’s one of perhaps dozens received that day, hundreds received that week, tens of thousands received that year. They need a way to get through that torrential downpour. If you give them one…

…the rest will never be history. #  

Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post: 
100 pages are the new 120.
             ---The Last Reveal