Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2003
I spent most of the weekend writing some thoughts on Dary's big screenplay.
I got a call from a film making friend of his to help coordinate a casting call. Hearing that message play on my machine, I knew which channels my phone number had filtered through, but at the time I had no idea Dary would be there. I was glad to see him, though slightly guarded, considering he an I haven't spoken since I walked off The Job four months ago. It was apparent he hadn't expected me, either. He stared at my dandilion hair, still in those akward middle stages of growing out from the eighth-of-an-inch buzz cut Jane gave me.
Over the three nights of that casting call, I was happy and relieved that Dary was so relaxed and sociable with me. I was the doorman in the lobby, he was the check-in guy on the third floor. When the casting couch was empty, he came down to hang out. I was aprehensive about what kind of residual politics might influence our interaction. As far as I know, Dary and Allen are still good friends. I'm probably the only one who still thinks about it, but since some very important social connections are loyal to Allen, I'm very conscious of making myself useful, valuable and pleasantly sociable after ditching Allen in the mall with half a days work to finish.
At the end of the last night, Dary and I were bullshitting a little bit. Caleb had been keeping me up to date on Dary's short film, but I asked about it anyway. There was little progress with it, but he had started shopping around his underworld mob comedy-of-errors, getting a few nibbles in L.A. I read the script last summer, to get an idea of what kind of writer he is and offered some ideas on tightening up the flab. At the time he dismissed my offer for a critique, saying the script was on the shelf indefinately. I was mildly annoyed, but I let it go. Dary off-handedly mentioned after the casting call that he would appreciate some of those ideas we talked about last summer.
I don't know if he'll bennefit from this deconstruction of his first-timer's script more than I have. Reading my own advice on paper has me all fired up to finish what I've started.
So there's the background on this. It's most likely gibberish to the passive reader. But I thought it might spark an idea with committed writers looking for some objective insight.
As for some unsolicited thoughts: The last time I saw you, you said some people were already reading this, which makes me think the script has gone through some revision since the draft I just read. So what I think may be hit or miss. The story is totally marketable; the script even more so after some tightening up here and there. I think, on a scaled-down production, this would be an excellent first feature for you, if for nothing else, at least to get your foot in the door. I know your short film was a big, fat, hairy financial deal, but I think in the long run making this script would serve your carreer better than selling it. All these characters and situations could be transplanted to a less specific urban center; McMahon could be a powerful resurant owner, or construction tycoon or some other type of King of the Hill loan shark. The point being, with a little adjustment to the setting, maybe a slight nudge of the storyline, the script can be brought to within an independent budget while retaining the same comedic/dramatic effects. After that, let the studios pay for the Las Rayegas production.
Okay, that said, here are my two bits....
This is a script I would love to see made, and a movie I would pay to see. The best thing going for it is the mix of characters who each put a different slant on their own little world. There are lots of good ideas in here but they're not woven into a single coherent story. What comes across are fragmented characters and situations inspired by favorite movies rather than originality. There doesn't seem to be that one dramatic question that makes an audience want to see what happens next. "Will Lita get the money?" is the main question that needs answering. But she's a peripheral character in the story. Everything else gets in the way of my caring about her. Find your protagonist(s) (Roddy could be a secondary one) and their (in)direct relationship to the antagonist and structure everything else around that.
How does the ball get rolling? Everything happens because Patterson fucks up. If he doesn't fix it, McMahon will kill him. There's the base measurement for the stakes in this story: McMahon will kill. The problem with McMahon is he's the coughing, sneezing, stuffy-nosed, headache, can't-get-any-rest mob boss who sits in bed and yells into a phone. He's a passive threat. As a writer, you can't expect your audience to equate this character to the cunning of Don Corleone, or the viciousness of Tony Soprano, or the tough love of Pauly (Goodfellas). We have to believe as much as the characters believe that he has and will murder for his money. We have to see what this guy is capable of that makes him a threat. Another way to do that is make him an unseen "Kaiser Solze" whom everyone is afraid of. Their fear of what he will do to them guides their every motive and action. They religiously believe the rumors, stories, myths and ledgends of McMahon. ...just an idea. McMahon needs serious work.
Then there's Patterson who makes this story happen because of serious personality issues. So he's given the reigns for a day by the boss everyone fears. What does he do? He fucks a girl on his bosses desk. Such disrespect! That's a GREAT setup for establishing his character's motives for the rest of the story. Is he an over- ambitious, scheming, back-stabbing mob lieutenant? Does he think of himself as the real brains behind the operation? Is he waiting for his chance to take the boss's place? Or is he just a complete idiot? A character is defined by his actions, not his dialogue. Is Patterson motivated by securing his promotion in the business or is he stacking the cards against McMahon? I'd like to see a lot more of Patterson in the script.
Who is Terri (and show us what a "knock out" looks like), and why is it important to McMahon that she is "taken care of"? This character has more to her than a plot device. The sex scene with her and Patterson is setting up some dramatic angle, but it's unclear exactly what that angle is. Have they been having sex for months? years? or is this their first oportunity? This is what makes me think Patterson is going behind McMahon's back. What has happened, is happening, will happen in the script feels like it's based on that office scene. After that, let everyone else's reactions to Patterson remind us that he's an asshole, if you want to take it that direction.
The rest of the script is a series of sub-plots that bounce off of each other instead of integrating. The first question is why does McMahon hire these characters to collect for him instead of reliable mob enforcers? There's no explanation that holds this idea together. Roddy is a believable mob agent until he blows a hole in the roof. I get the feeling that after Patterson is given the job for the day, he either doesn't know how to handle it, or he wants to impress McMahon with his own "progressive" ideas about how to do business. If Patterson himself hires Roddy, Sable and Dudleys, it would explain alot about why McMahon has never met any of them. This isn't cloak & dagger, it's tightly- knit mob business. Everyone entrusted to a job is well known.
And speaking of cloak & dagger, what's with the whole poker/micro chip angle? It doesn't have a context within the story, nor does it advance anything other then a "cool" factor. It's more complicating and confusing than cool. There'd better be a damn good reason for using encrypted microchips instead of plain white envelopes because the story isn't about hi-tech gadgetry. This could be another oportunity to show Patterson's situation and relationship to the collectors. They each have a different reaction to him as they collect their assignments from him. Maybe this is where he gets all the information mixed up.
All of the scenes of confrontation -- Sable and Senator, Roddy and Lombardi, Dudley's and Oh Baby at the diner -- need time to build momentum so that the audience will believe the payoff. Dudleys in Nash's room builds pretty well. But this isn't an art film, so don't make us do too much work in figuring out and remembering that Roddy went in like Rambo expecting Nash & Co in the room. It comes across as completely out of character for Roddy because we've seen nothing in him like that before. Audience memory retains very little for short amounts of time. Show us how baddass Nash and his men are a few times, and remind us that Roddy thinks he's breaking into Nash's room. The scene is great, especially when Roddy finds Lombardi passed out. Don't lose it, just build it up to a payoff.
Every character worth mentioning has their own history. Show us a slice every chance you get, but you have to know that backstory, otherwise we know you just pulled it out of your ass. The Desk Clerk, Diner Waitress, Fat Man can add much more depth and texture to the whole story if you give them a life history and incorporate significant pieces of that into their scenes. It sounds like Syd Field bullshit, but it's true.
What kind of WAITRESS is she underneath the uniform? Is she the wrinkled housewife with a night job, bitter because the blue eyeshadow she learned to put on in her prime attracts more stifled laughs than gentlemen callers? Without this kind of character detail, she has no more depth than the paper she's written on. Why give her speaking lines?
In the FAT MAN I see a regular guy who's gambled his his whole life away. His wife left him, took the kids, and very recently, too. His house was foreclosed. He's sitting alone amongst the remants of what used to be a happy American Dream family life: family pictures in the hallway; kids' toys scattered on the floor. What kinds of leftovers from that life can we see in his house while he's drinking himself into oblivion? Maybe we see a fancy, expensive kitchen, photos of his wife's graduation from cooking school, and cardboard TRay dinner and pizza boxes littering the kitchen counters. Something like that tells us how The Fat Man fits into this story, and whether or not we should care about him.
Lita needs to inhabit a detailed life. What nationality is she? How does that affect her decision-making? How old is she? What kind of clothes does she wear? Does she work, have a boyfriend, read a lot of books? What goals, dreams, aspirations, expectations does she have for her life before all this happens to her? These are the little visual details that we see in the background of any given scene. If she wants to be an artist, maybe we see some of her sketches on the wall - but whether they're taped or tacked up or framed will tell us what kind of artist she thinks she is. Maybe her father was supporting her dreams to become - something - and now she has to put those dreams on hold to support herself.
INT. HOSPITAL ICU WARD - ERayENING This is a good time to show us what is at stake for the Denzlers. What is it that drives her to steal money from a gang of armed mob thugs? What's more, if her father is in the hospital with gunshot wounds, how do you get around police involvement? Maybe her father dies in the junkyard.
Roddy is interesting because he doesn't react to his relationships the way we'd expect him to. He's the only one who seems unafraid of McMahon. He's also the only one to show concern for another human being. What is Roddy expecting out of life and does he find it? In his scene with Lombardi, I expected all of his bottled up frustration with "the way things are" to explode, creating a turning point in his arc, forcing him to decide what he's going to do about it. Although he may be afraid to, maybe, in that scene, he's decided he wants to part ways with McMahon/Patterson, but doesn't realize it until he shoots McMahon at the end. Maybe he becomes a father figure to Lita after that...? (Whether in the hospital, or the junkyeard, her father is dead, right?)
Who are the Dudley BROTHERS? Do they have goals in life? Or are they just a couple of microwave cheeseburgers? Does working for McMahon fulfill some dilusional self image? Do they have girlfriends, or are they regular johns? What do these guys do in their off-hours? It may seem unimportant to advancing the story but these little details make characters out of caricatures. As they are, my imagination sees a couple of fat guys in expensive jogging suits. Maybe you meant them to be muscular and good-looking, successful with the ladies. There's just not enough detail in their actions or descriptions.
DIALOGUE AS YOUR WORST ENEMY:
Stop explaining everything with dialogue! The only information this reveals is that the writer has no idea how the characters live, act, operate within their world. Real people don't ever say out loud what they're thinking or doing. Dialogue is all about what's not said, but that doesn't mean pointless babble, "witty" banter or random exchanges of one-liners make good dialogue. Unless, in that case, the character is a complete moron who thinks he's brilliant.
McMahon on the phone with Fat Man. First: why explain to your audience what Sable's character is all about before we see her in action? It's spoiling the present before we unwrap it. Second: why is McMahon giving this guy a four-day heads up? Could this phone conversation play like the scene in The Professional where Leon has a blade to the fat man's throat while the fat man is on the phone?
Try rearranging that entire sequence with Sable mistakenly breaking into the Senator's house. It feels like it's supposed to be misdirection, a lá climax sequence in Silence of the Lambs, but we already know that Sable broke into the wrong house because we've seen the correct address on the Fat Man's house after hearing McMahon on the phone. Find a way to integrate all those static elements: Sable arriving at the house, McMahon on the phone with Fat Man (as if McMahon thinks Sable is in the room with Fat Man), shooting old man and his wife.
Don't forget that we have got to see Sable's handywork. Is she like John Doe from Se7en, or Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs?
INT. DINER - NIGHT Give the Dudley brothers something else to talk about. Don't even mention "Oh Baby" out loud; it's tediously spoiling what is about to happen. Letting his actions speak for him is more dramtic/comedic because of what's not said. Ray wouldn't be so distracted; he knows he's gonna get the guy. He eats weenies like that for breakfast. He used to fuck guys like that in prison. He knows. WE know. Don't explain it to us.
Ray is the kind of asshole who would passively force Oh Baby to make the first move. Have him park the van behind the BMW in the parking lot, and let him just wait for Oh Baby to say something. Maybe Ray even licks his middle finger through the window at him.
The rest of this scene is great! DeeVon ordering pie while Ray pulverizes the guy shows us alot about where they come from.
NIP & TUCK THE LANGUAGE:
Don't EVER refer to "you" in your action. The reader instantly knows that the writer can't write what he wants to say. (Show Me Don't Tell Me)
No, I don't know the type of guy. Why is DESK CLERK so miserable? Give everyone - readers, audience, actors, filmmakers - something immediate and specific to work with. Did Lita interrupt a football game, or a blow job?
Where something is described excessively, you can condense and streamline the language. Don't be afraid to stack several adjectives in front of a noun or verb. Color, flavor, flare, tone, spice, voice - whatever you want to call it - comes out of word choice, not creative arrangement of words.
Here's some GREAT description:
It says two things at once: the style of clothing (thus, the type of character), and their current state of soilage after his blowout party.
SHOW ME, DON'T TELL ME:
Be very specific about what happens on screen. Your own impressions won't ever be the same as your reader's/audience. Describe what something is, not what it's not (i.e. Casino). It's better to write actual detail and let the reader/audience form their own reactions than to try explaining what you meant.
How can the reader tell? We have no idea what he looks like. How big/tall is he - not litterally, but relative to Lita, or the door, or to the camera? Is he muscular, or a big, fat slob? Is he wearing a rain coat or a sports jacket? Wrinkled or neatly pressed? Hat? Shoes? Polished or scuffed? Any distinguishing marks on his head, face or hands that show us what kind of man this is?
Since any idea can be interpretted an infinite number of ways, describing people and action must then be preceise, factual, almost clinical, and only in terms of what the audience will see and hear.
Introducing a character ought to be when the reader/audience is given all the exposition needed for the character's function in the story. Something like the Denzler family grocery store may be stereotypical, but it efficiently gives loads of information about Lita and her relationship to Roddy and to her father, and the relationship between the two men. Lita is an average person who ends up doing extraordinary things. That can be set up in half a page. Upon her introduction we could see her struggling to run the business without her father. What the character does tells the audience what their function in the story is/will be.
There is obvious, and interesting history with Roddy and the Denzlers. Here's a mobster who is reluctant to do his job with Lita. Without explaining anything (dialogue can be your worst enemy), how do you show the familiarity between Roddy and Lita? Did Roddy fight in Rayiet Nam? Was he in business with her father? Show that history, whatever it is, through their interactions.
EXT. HILTON PARKING LOT - EVENING Another oportunity to reveal more information about Lita's character is showing us where she got the gun. Does her father own it or is it an ordeal for her to figure out how to get one?
INT. McMahon'S OFFICE - AFTERNOON Why does WANDA burst in asking for the chips if McMahon just ordered Patterson to deliver them personally? The way she's written, she comes off as cheap stereotypical comic relief. In the end the messege becomes FEMINISTS WHO SPEAK UP FOR THEMSELRayES GET SHOT.
If McMahon is reading from a file folder on Steve Lombardi (and why does a mobster keep files? Is it records from the Casino security office?), why doesn't he just give them the information?
Every other time there's a FREEZE FRAME and title cards we jump to a flashback, except with Sable. In her case it's slightly disorienting.
SOGGY is very telling of his character in terms of what kind of personality does/doesn't take care of his physical health.
OBSCENE rubs off on Nash' character, making him seem obscenely greedy, glutonous by association.
The kind of car Roddy drives says alot about his character.
TIMBERS gives me a vivid mental image of how he went down. All the action writing should be as effective as this.
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