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

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