Saturday, November 24, 2007

November 24, 2007
Like three quarters of the people who live in this country I have a conceit I could write a popular movie.

A Stark Confession
I've wanted to make movies ever since my cousin and I filmed V-2 Rocket Farm at our grandparent's farm in Thompson, Iowa.

The Stark Reality
That was in the summer of 1963, so I'm 0 for 44 (years at bat). And as a certain therapist I'm married to likes to say, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior."

I have come close. In 1980 two different Hollywood producers attempted to buy the rights to my cartoon character Honkytonk Sue. After landing an agent at William Morris I chose a third suitor, Solt-Leo Productions in Hollywood. Thru them I got a shot at writing a treatment (a Cliff Notes version of a script) but when it was shown to the potential star, Goldie Hawn, she said, and I quote, "I think we need to get a pro." Since her career was on fire (she had just starred in the box office smash Private Benjamin and had landed a five picture deal), they went right to the top of the food chain and brought in "Mr. Lonseome Dove" Larry McMurtry and Leslie Marmon Silko to write a script. They ended up writing three. They weren't very good. Columbia Pictures then hired another writing team, Jerry Leischling and Arlene Sarner, who had recently written the much sought after screenplay Peggy Sue Got Married (1986, Nicholas Cage and Kathleen Turner, directed by Francis Ford Coppola), and they came in and working off of McMurtry's efforts, wrote three more scripts on Honkytonk Sue. They were a little better.

Even with Goldie Hawn attached, the movie never got made. So, the lesson has been clear to me for a long time: it ain't as easy as humming (see below).

But I digress. I'm sixty and I still believe I can create characters and stories that would make good movies. I've read William Goldman's Adventures In The Screenwriting Trade, and a couple other "how to" books, so I have long thought, Hey, I know story.

Based on what I've been reading the past few weeks, I don't know jack.

The atuhor of Story, Robert McKee, makes the convincing point this is tantamount to being able to hum and thinking you can write a symphony. And, he says that's what good movies are—symphony's.

Case in point: let's suppose a character named, oh, I don't know, Mickey Free, decides to go to a nearby wickiup and interview an Apache woman who he suspects killed her husband's lover. He rides up, goes inside and talks with her. She's upset, tries to lie her way clear, but he slaps her around a bit, and she finally confesses.

Seems like a decent scene to me. Well, here's how a certain screenwriting pro actually handled this premise:

J.J. Gittes pulls up to a bungalow in Santa Monica and jumps out of a Buick, bolts up the steps, twists the door knob, finds it locked and bangs on the door.

A Chinese servant comes to the door and says, "You wait." [this is called a stop, or gap, and according to McKee every single scene in a screenplay should have this dynamic, which I didn't know].

"You wait," Gittes snarls back, barging in the house, adding, "Chow hoy kye dye!" (translation: "F*** off, punk!").

Inside, Gittes looks up as Evelyn Mulwray appears on the stairs behind the servant, nervously adjusting her necklace as she descends. Evelyn smiles reassuringly to Khan and gestures for him to leave.

Evelyn: "It's all right, Khan." Then turning back to Gittes: "How are you? I've been calling you."

Gittes turns away and steps into the living room: ". . .Yeah?"

Evelyn follows him, searching his face: "Did you get some sleep?"

Gittes: "Sure."

Evelyn: "Have you had lunch? Khan can fix you something."

Gittes: "Where's the girl?"

Evelyn: "Upstairs. Why?"

Gittes: "I want to see her."

Evelyn: "She's having a bath now. Why do you want to see her?"

Gittes looks around the room and sees half-packed suitcases. "Going somewhere?"

Evelyn: "Yes, we have a 5:30 train to catch."

Gittes picks up the telephone. Evelyn is clearly alarmed: "Jake?"

Gittes, ear to phone: "J.J. Gittes for Lt. Escobar."

Evelyn: "Look, what's the matter? What's wrong? I told you, we've got a 5:30 train. . ."

Gittes: "You're gonna miss your train. (into phone) Lou, meet me at 1972 Canyon Drive. . .yeah, soon as you can."

Evelyn: "Why did you do that?"

Gittes tosses his hat on the table. "You know any good criminal lawyers?"

Evelyn: "No."

Gittes takes out a silver cigarette case: "Don't worry. I can recommend a couple. They're expensive, but you can afford it."

Gittes calmly takes a lighter from his pocket, sits down and lights a cigarette.

Evelyn: "Will you please tell me what this is all about?"

Gittes pulls out a wrapped handkerchief and sets it on the table. Carefully pulling back the four corners of the cloth we see broken eyeglasses. "I found these in your backyard in the pond. They belonged to your husband, didn't they. . .didn't they?"

Evelyn: "I don't know. Yes, probably."

Gittes jumps up: "Yes, positively. That's where he was drowned."

Evelyn (stunned): "What?!"

Gittes: "There's no time to be shocked by the truth. The coroner's report proves that he had salt water in his lungs when he was killed. Just take my word for it, all right? Now I want to know how it happened, and I want to know before Escobar gets here because I don't want to lose my license."

Evelyn: "I don't know what you are talking about. This is the craziest, the most insane thing. . ."

Gittes: "Stop it! I'm gonna make it easy for you. You were jealous, you had a fight, he fell, hit his head. . .it was an accident . . .but his girl's a witness. So you had to shut her up. You don't have the guts to harm her, but you've got the money to shut her mouth. Yes or no?"

Evelyn: "No!"

Gittes: "Who is she? And don't give me that crap about a sister because you don't have a sister."

Evelyn: "I'll tell you. . .I'll tell you the truth."

Gittes: "Good. What's her name?"

Evelyn: ". . .Katherine."

Gittes: "Katherine who?"

Evelyn: "She's my daughter."

Gittes lashes out and slaps her flush across the face. "I said the truth."

Evelyn: "She's my sister. . ."

Gittes slaps her again.

Evelyn: "She's my daughter."

Gittes hits her again, sees her tears.

Evelyn: ". . .my sister. . ."

Another slap. Evelyn: "my daughter, my sister. . ."

Gittes give her a backhand, grasps her and hurls her into a sofa, snarling, "I said I want the truth!"

Evelyn: "She's my sister and my daughter."

Hearing the racket, the servant Khan pounds down the stairs. Evelyn: "Khan, please, go back. For God's sake, keep her upstairs. Go back!" Khan gives Gittes a hard look, then retreats upstairs.

Evelyn: "My father and I. . .understand? Or is it too tough for you?"

Gittes: "He raped you?"

Evelyn, shaking her head in shame: "No."

In an earlier draft, Evelyn explains at great length how her mother died when she was fifteen and her father's grief was such that he had a breakdown and became a little boy unable to feed or dress himself and this led to incest and then he turned his back on her, etc. But it was decided that this slowed down the scene and gave her father, Noah, too much sympathy. So the one word answer, "No," conveys a world of back story, left unsaid.

Of course the scene goes on and there are more reversals (Evelyn comments that those aren't her husband's glasses) and now the two of them are desperately trying to escape events that he put in motion, and Gittes asks where Khan lives, maybe they could go there and he, of course, lives in Chinatown, where Gittes once had a girlfriend who, because of him died tragically, and now he's going back there one more time and maybe, this time he'll get it right.

"Humming indeed."
-BBB, commenting on Robert Towne's screenwriting ability

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