Thursday, August 31, 2006

Side-Topic: Perfect Formatting

It’s certainly no secret. I believe that all the screenplays we write today must be flawless in terms of formatting and grammar simply because of the competition. Everything counts.

And in
my recent review of Mickey Lee’s great new story, The Other Side, which you really should read if you get the chance, I did a little bird-walking on this topic, and I thought it might be worth sharing with my blogger friends…

“SOAPBOX - We have a century of filmmaking behind us. It's high time we collectively admit what we already know, that screenwriting has become its own art form. I firmly believe that we are entering a new era where the next generation of screenwriters must write at a more heightened level of craftsmanship than ever before (because of history and competition and also) because if your film gets made and it's popular, it's inevitable that your script will hit the web and people will study your work and make judgments on your craftsmanship. You cannot make a good movie from a bad script. But it's very possible (and easy) to turn a good script into a bad movie. And if that happens to you, if your script hits the web, you want people to look at it and maybe they'll say (like they said of Shane Black's The Long Kiss Goodnight), ‘hey, you know, the movie didn’t live up to the script.’

It's not enough to have an idea and get a sale. In this day and age, you're only as good as your last script, and you must deliver the storytelling goods every time you're at bat. When The Da Vinci Code came out with all of its endless talk and exposition, Akiva Goldsman was no longer written about as the great screenwriter who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. In fact, critics just HAD to remind us that this was the dork who wrote Batman & Robin. Your screenwriting career really depends upon how well you adhere to what you know are the principles of great screenwriting, because once you get sales and climb to the top, you enter a world where there is no discipline, where people tempt you to abandon what you know and write shit for them, which will bomb, and then the world rips you apart and sends you packing back to amateurville. I certainly don't need to explain that it's a cold, vile, vicious world out there, and frankly, I find comfort in like-minded writer-friends. The constant back and forth in feedback, I push them to do better, they push me to do better, and we both stay focused over the long haul on what's important about the art of storytelling.”

Subtext - The Graduate

Ahh, yes, many of you know from TriggerStreet the great David Muhlfelder who, from the age of 16 months to 5 years, “lived in a state mental hospital in Harrisburg, PA.” His father, a German-Jewish psychiatrist and refugee from Nazi Germany, was the hospital's clinical director. They got all their food for free from the hospital grocery store. They ate steak almost every night. “I was happy there,” he says. “One day I hope to return to a place just like it. I think I'm well on my way.”

I’ve admired David from afar, and I’ve been patiently looking forward to reviewing one of his stories. Or all of them. That day will come, I’m sure. As you know, I love to analyze. I love to dive right into a story, dig around its inner workings, and figure it all out - story, structure, format, characters - everything. My reviews average about 2000 words, and if I love your story, I might go up to 5000 words.

David Muhlfelder, on the other hand, will shoot you down with unbelievable accuracy in about 200 words or less. He always makes me think of David & Goliath. While I would choose to take down the giant with a submachine gun riddling holes into every crevice of his body, David will use a simple pebble and sling and never fail to hit his target right between the eyes.


He’s a prolific reviewer on
TriggerStreet. I believe he does at least one review a day, sometimes more. There are, at the time of this posting, 569 reviews under his belt. He’s received all the accolades the site can offer a member including Reviewer of the Month. Not only that, he has four wildly popular stories, all Top Ten Favorites: Pride of Lyons, Why We Fight, The Professor’s Widow, and The Butterfly Man, which was recently Screenplay of the Month.

David’s choice -
Buck Henry’s classic script, The Graduate.

“There's a scene in The Graduate when Ben tells his parents that he's going to marry Elaine Robinson. As his parents pump him for details, it becomes apparent that he hasn't told anybody of his plans including Elaine. This prompts his father to say “Ben, this whole thing sounds a little half-baked.” Ben responds “Oh no, it's completely baked. It's a decision I've made.” In that one moment, Ben's character arc takes a turn in a whole new direction. The frightened and confused young man who was so worried about his future that he allowed others to make his decisions for him suddenly seizes control of his life and takes the first bold step towards controlling his own destiny.”

Oh, come on, David. You of all people should know that the point of the movie was really about a future in plastics. Hehehe… I’m SO kidding.

Thanks so much.

Since we’re on the topic of The Graduate and subtext, I cannot resist including the famous, comical, (and my favorite) moment when Mrs. Robinson famously visits Ben in his room the night of the party. I love the cat-and-mouse game here - the seduction, the resistance, and the double meaning behind Ben’s “No, I’m just sort of disturbed about things.” Hehehe


Ben stands with his back against the door. The SOUNDS of the PARTY downstairs and, as Ben walks across the room to a window… The SOUND of the door OPENING. Ben turns. MRS. ROBINSON enters the room.

Oh. I guess this isn't the
bathroom, is it?

It's down the hall.

They stand for a moment, looking at each other.

How are you, Benjamin?

Fine, thank you. The bathroom is
down at the end of the hall.

Mrs. Robinson moves into the room and sits on the edge of the bed.

Look, Mrs. Robinson, I don't
mean to be rude but -

Mrs. Robinson takes a cigarette from her purse and lights it.

Is there an ashtray in here?


Oh - I forgot. The track star
doesn't smoke.

She blows out the match and puts it down carefully on the bedspread. Ben picks up a wastebasket, walks over to the bed, picks up the match and puts it in the wastebasket.

Is it a girl?

Is what a girl?

Whatever it is you're upset

Oh - no. I'm just sort of
disturbed about things.

In general.

That's right.

There is a long pause.

Benjamin, I want to ask you


Will you take me home?


My husband took the car. Will
you drive me home?

Ben reaches into his pocket and hands Mrs. Robinson
a set of car keys.

Here - you take it.

Mrs. Robinson looks at him.

Do you know how to work a
foreign shift?

Mrs. Robinson shakes her head.

You don't?


Let's go.

She throws the keys to him. He catches them.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Subtext - Finding Neverland

Got a whole slew of subtext coming this week. And no, it’s not too late to send me a scene. Please keep the submissions coming (via email)!

Kevin Broom (“kjb” on TriggerStreet). He is the Director of Media Relations for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, and he brings us a scene from David Magee’s screenplay, Finding Neverland, which was an adaptation of Allan Knee’s play, “The Man Who Was Peter Pan.” The script isn't available online, but you can get the transcript here.

If Kevin’s analysis is any indication of his ability to write, I think we can look forward to a lot of great things from him. Good job!


I'm enjoying your series a great deal. One of my favorite bits of subtext comes in a scene from Finding Neverland. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of the screenplay. In the scene (starts about 49 minutes in), Barrie has arrives home late in the evening after visiting the Davies family at the country house. Here's my transcription of the scene:


The dog lies sleepily in the doorway. A key rattles in the lock. James enters the house. From down the hall comes a GILBERT CANNON's voice.

He sees Mary wearing an ornate dress and sitting close to a man in an impeccable tuxedo.


James steps into the parlor and looks at Mary and the stranger. She stands quickly. The man rises slowly.


James says nothing. Looks from Mary to the man.

Well you remember Gilbert Cannon,
don't you?

James nods slightly.

Good evening.

Mr. Cannon has been working on the
Committee to Fight Government

She hands James a pamphlet. He glances at it.

I know how involved you've been as

(to James)
He wanted to speak to you. Did
think you'd be home so much

It's been a long evening, Mary.

Yes. Well, if I'd realized how late
it was, of course.

(to James)
I should perhaps talk to you
another time? When it's not so

James flips through the pamphlet.

(over Cannon)
That would be fine.

Cannon gathers his coat and hat.

We'll talk then. Thank you for your
patience Mrs. Barrie. Mr. Barrie.
Good night.

Cannon walks down the hallway. Mary and James stand silently until they hear the door open and close.

Well aren't you going to speak?

What would you like me to say?
Curious how late Mr. Cannon stayed
I suppose. And then let's see, what
comes next? No later than you were
out James. And how is Mrs. Davies
this evening? Oh yes, I will have a
great answer for that one, wouldn't I?

How dare you? This isn't one of
your plays.

I know that, Mary. It's quite
serious. But I'm not ready for this
conversation we're having, Mary.

James walks away.

Perhaps we can talk in the morning,
yes? Good night then.

Mary turns off the light. Upstairs, James' door closes.

Mary notices James' journal lying on a table. She picks it up and squeezes it in her hands.

I love this scene as an example of subtext. All three know exactly what was going on. Mary and Cannon have "seen" each other. Whether or not they're actually having an affair at that point is immaterial. Cannon is in James' house far past the hour to be soliciting a donation for a political cause.

At the same time, James has come in far too late to be have the right to confront Mary. Plus, he has been with another woman. That the "other woman" is ill, and that technically his interest is primarily in the boys isn't really material. So, they all play nice and polite while Cannon is still there -- everyone going along with everyone else's cover story even though no one believes any of it.

When Cannon leaves, there's a slight shift. Mary's "Aren't you going to speak?" is really an invitation to argument. But she doesn't want to be the one to start it. James attacks her by saying aloud what each would likely say if they indeed argued.

She believes she's being mocked "how dare you?" and accuses him of living in a fantasy world.

The next bit of dialogue is brilliant. He agrees, then says, "It's quite serious." Would this be subtext within subtext? It sounds like he's talking about their marriage. But, Depp gave a brilliant delivery of the line -- he says it like he's talking about a medical condition. Which of course he might be, because Mrs. Davies is seriously ill.

Then he shuts down the conversation and leaves.

Finally, we have Mary picking up his journal and practically embracing it. Regardless of what else is going on, this is a woman who wants to be part of her husband's life. She goes on to read it in following scenes, which is a horrible violation of privacy (perhaps particularly horrifying to me because I've had someone read my journal and use information in it against me). Regardless, she wants to know what her husband is thinking, and he's either unable (emotionally) or unwilling to tell her. So she takes the journal. Altogether, I find this scene to be a world-class example of subtext.

Thanks again for the discussion in your blog. I just discovered it, and I'm enjoying it immensely.

- Kevin

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Subtext with Billy Mernit

Who is Billy Mernit?

This beautiful man is an eclecticism of so many creative abilities and so much life history, I doubt I have the space to list them all. He’s a professional story analyst for Universal Studios (although, apparently, they forgot to ask for his feedback on The Break-Up).

You can hire him as your very own script consultant. In the last decade alone, he’s read nearly 4,000 screenplays. (Pfft! Slacker! Hehehe…)

Billy Mernit is also this country’s foremost Rom-Com expert. He’s the author of the wonderful book,
Writing the Romantic Comedy. When you think of penning a Rom Com, you had better be familiar with Billy Mernit’s wisdom. He teaches half a dozen courses at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and was awarded 2001's Outstanding Screenwriting Instructor of the Year. You could attend one of his free writing workshops at UCLA during the ArtsDay LA event, I believe.

He has a novel ready-to-be-published called Making Up. You can read an excerpt

In the ‘70’s, he was Diane Keaton’s vocal coach for an album that regrettably, never came to fruition. He gave Carly Simon the line “clouds in my coffee” for her song, You’re So Vain.

Here’s something scandalous - in the ‘80’s, he published 20 Harlequin Romance Novels pretending to be a FEMALE novelist by the name of “Lee Williams” and also “Leigh Anne Williams.” Hehehe… That still makes me laugh. How can you not love that? You can read about his double life
here and here.

Even more scandalous – he played one of the “Blondells” in the 1980 movie classic,
Times Square. Hehehe… Of the three, he was, of course, the BEST BLONDELL.

Let’s see… What else? He was once a Teleprompter, Educational Research Assistant, and Keyboardist for
Pink Lady.

OH! Get this. He’s also a SINGER-SONGWRITER. He even has a
Greatest Hits CD!

Did I cover everything? Oh no, wait, how could I possibly forget? He is also the author of one of my favorite screenwriting blogs,
Living the Romantic Comedy. I’m not an ardent comment-poster, but I’ve read his entire blog. I've been doing it since January. (It goes back to June ’05.) It’s addictive. I daresay, it should be required reading for all aspiring screenwriters. He has the most wonderful posts on subjects like Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle, the problem with most aspiring screenwriters, A Few Good Words, Cinematic Valentines, How Movie Is It, Cary Grant, and… well, I could go on and on.

(Personally, my favorite posts were “Buckets of Rain”
Part 1 and 2.)

I love the man. I really do, but alas, I must move on to the subject at hand. Billy was so kind as to give us three simple examples of subtext in dialogue rich for our discussion.

Thanks so much, Billy.



In terms of dramatic writing, one could teach any number of courses or write a book on SUBTEXT alone, but since you're concentrating on dialogue...

Here's a few favorites because they're so wonderfully succinct. One of the all-time greats, in terms of just how much information, emotion, theme, and character, et al, can be packed into one word has got to be:


I'm thinking not of the first time it's uttered in Kane, but in the fantastic "let's tear up my errant wife's bedroom" scene in the back end of the movie, when Welles comes upon the snowglobe and utters the word to himself. I'd say if you ever want to explain "subtext in dialogue" to someone, refer them to this Mankiewicz & Welles classic.

More recently, I was blown away by the closing lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Jim Carrey character and the Kate Winslett character are agreeing to give their relationship a shot -- fully understanding that the first time they went through it, they went through hell, and that they both in fact agreed that their romance was hopeless. But they decide, against all odds, to try again. What could be more mundane and seemingly simple than:

He: Okay.
She: Okay.

Yet when you see it on screen, having been through one profound, wild emotional ride with these two, it's devastating. I wept the first time. These days I still tear up even thinking about it!

Most recent one-worder I've seen is in the last big scene between Depp and Knightley in Pirates Pt. 2. So as not to be a spoiler, I can't go into details, but let's just note that there is a lot, a lot, a lot built into two syllables, when he looks at her and simply says:


Hope you can get some milage out of these.


2 Reviews You DIDN’T See

As soon as I posted these reviews on TriggerStreet, the scripts were immediately removed from the site, and of course, the reviews disappeared with them.

Burn it. Walk away. Don't look back.

I will admit that, apart from the bad grammar, even worse formatting, flowery novel-like action lines, half-dimensional characters, overly talky on-the-nose crude & tasteless dialogue, embarrassingly disparaging treatment of women (by both the protagonist and the antagonist), and a story that panders blatantly to the worst most basest impulses in human beings, this wasn't completely wretched. It goes without saying, of course, that this story has no depth, no credibility, and no artistic value of any kind beyond it's ability to briefly divert one's attention, which lasts about thirty pages and for me, ended around the time Dr. Ballz Smooth started pulling crabs out of Harry Sherry's crotch. After that precious moment (and mental image I will spend years trying to forget) reading this spec became an exercise of mental endurance of Olympic proportions to get to the end. But hey, with a name like "Squeegee Pimp King," it was silly of me to expect something more than what I got.

The very first sentence of this spec was so bad (it involves Martha Stewart and "panty soup") that I believe the good folks at Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest would create a special Screenplay Category just for the "Squeegee Pimp King." Folks, this is the "Brown Bunny" of TriggerStreet. This is the kind of movie that if, miracle of miracles, it actually got made, would be lambasted so viciously in the media and through word of mouth that a few people might go just to see how bad it really is. And then the awards would start pouring in, the kinds of awards you want to avoid, like the Moldy Tomato Award at or worse, this could sweep the Golden Razzies at Oscar time. As a writer, you would be a marked target for the rest of your career, forever known as "the guy who wrote the Squeegee Pimp King," and no, I'd argue that's not a good thing. A few years from now when you've matured as an artist and you're ready to do something serious, something challenging, something your heart really wants to explore because you're tired of wallowing in the muck of childish potty humor, you'll pitch an important story to producers and that's when people will really laugh, because hey, you're the guy who wrote the "Squeegee Pimp King."

And yet and yet and yet, this could be a great writer…

As I read this crazy thing, I kept getting the feeling that there's a very smart, very creative mind behind this work that's capable of doing so much more than this, something great even, but is in fact being lazy here and worse, throwing away time and great opportunities to really develop his craft instead of conjuring this frivolous piece of forgettable, immature, mysogonistic, pop-culture-referencing dud of a story.

Okay, Mystery Man, explain how you can say one comedy is good and another is bad? Who are you to judge? Or to put it another way, if you're saying that the "Squeegee Pimp King" is the lowest form of comedy, what's the highest? Easy. Satire. Satire is the highest form of comedy, no question about it. Anybody, and I mean anybody, can come up with stomach-churning shock material and that is absolutely the laziest form of comedy writing. The best example of satire comedy that I can think of right now is Richard Pryor. He was "profane but profound." He stepped onto the world stage with both guns blazing shooting barrel after barrel of gut-busting-laugh-until-you're-in-pain-brand-of-comedy that sugar coated his own razor sharp political & social observations. By making fun of our differences, he showed us that we are all fundamentally and universally human. They were difficult pills for many at the time, but you laughed your way toward appreciating not just blacks but anyone who is different from you, which he admitted was hard even for him to do. But we laughed trying. That's the beauty of satire. No one is safe, no one is exempt, and every race, sex, and creed may be lampooned, which actually serves a greater good. By poking fun at everyone, our ballooning egos are collectively burst and we are humbled into acknowledging that yes, we're all human, we're all flawed, and we're all part of the same crazy race. At the same time, it must be said that Richard Pryor was also intensely personal, which is so important to comedy. He shared himself with us. He had us laughing together with him at his own pain, his drug problems, his sexual dysfunctions, and even the time he accidentally set himself on fire. Can you imagine turning something that horrible into comedy? Richard Pryor did it and he did it unforgettably, the only way he could do it. And you know what? By doing that, he helped others. Comedy is the most beautiful, the most underappreciated, the most therapeutic, and the most necessary of all art forms. It's downright essential to a healthy life. And I believe those are the highest ideals we can aspire to in our comedies. How I wish there was a Richard Pryor for the middle east…

Is this writer a madman, a drug addict, or a genius?

You know you're in for a rough time when you're staring at a 121-page spec and the first two pages are almost indecipherable. Doubt me, fellow readers? Let's indulge together, shall we? Below is the opening of Ronald Mendrick's "Molecular:"



"FLOAT QUICKLY, carried by the wind. Heavier now, move FASTER, in a more straightforward pattern. A scream pierces the night, and a TRANSITION SOUND occurs OVER, chime-like. Suddenly, ALTITUDE decreases, as though suddenly changed from a feather to a grape."

Uh huh.

It gets better:

"Move faster and faster and faster and faster, toward a now totally black expanse.


"The TRANSITION SOUND occurs again, but of a slightly DEEPER TONE, and suddenly IMMENSE BLUE TRANSLUCENT SPHERES crowd around, omnidirectionally."

[Dude, "omnidirectionally" is not a word. "Omnidirectional" is a word. It's an adjective, and it has nothing to do with the movement of objects. It has to do with the sending and receiving of radio waves from any direction. "Omnidirectional" may only be used as an adjective, nothing else.]

Then I come across some descriptions about enormous and grotesque giants. We are zipped around various parts of their bodies from their feet to their clothes, which have plaid patterns (kilts, maybe?), then up to the ear of the giant woman and over to her "enormous wedge of cartilage." I think to myself, "Oh, I get it. We must be a fly." BUT WAIT! Flies aren't tiny enough to enter a "microcosmic universe" and I still have no clue as to what the "blue translucent spheres" were all about. So a re-read of the first two pages is in order. I discover that certain sentences I wrote off as incomprehensible gibberish now contain subtle clues:

"RUN toward the shoe. TRANSITION SOUND chimes and rise again into the wind. The huge shoe, centered ahead, shifts out of view as the wind shears whimsically. Thus moves a mote of dust."

And later:

"Back into the sky again. RIDE the air currents. FLOAT high above the two gargantuan forms. Be a mote again, a mote that weighs A HUNDRED POUNDS. FLY straight downwards. Compensate with a TRANSITION SOUND and STRIKE the giant plaid man again. This time, the giant SCREAMS."

So apparently we are NOT a fly. We must be a mote, a speck of dust. And when the speck of dust strikes the giant, it screams, and I think that was supposed to be a joke. Or maybe the mote literally expanded (for some mysterious reason) into a 100-pound boulder of dust that actually hurt the giant. I don't know. My head is spinning, and I'm already worn out by the first two pages.

[As it turns out, I was wrong. We were not a fly, nor a speck of dust, but in fact, we were (gulp) "Molecular Man" and that sequence must've been from his POV. I think.]

Oy vey...

Needless to say, most of this spec was almost unintelligable and unfilmmable. There were a few bright spots where I really wondered what it would look like on the big screen like this sequence:

"When the teeth reach the SIZE OF A MAILBOX, they settle to the ground and hop, soundlessly, toward The Cheese. The Cheese stumbles, turns, and falls. ANOTHER SET of the dentures which appear behind him. FOUR SETS of teeth surround The Cheese. The teeth SNAP, making sharp CLACKING SOUNDS. The teeth FLY, circling The Cheese. The Cheese SCREAMS, and then, the teeth BITE The Cheese. Blood flies as they chomp small pieces of him away. The Cheese SCREAMS again and again, and the CHOMPING increases tempo, nearly flatulent in its pace, and soon, The Cheese screams no longer. The teeth FLOW into one another, becoming one LARGE SET of teeth."

Poor Cheese...

Poor, helpless, defenseless, little... Cheese.

So here's my dilemma - how should I handle this review? Should I articulate honestly just how bad this thing really is? Or should I give a generous pity review with a few high marks because it'll be obvious to anyone who tries to read this crazy thing that it will never see the light of day? Hmmm... Maybe I should consider the writer first. Who is this guy? Wow, that's an interesting picture. He's in his 50s, has a BA from San Francisco State and a long history with acting. Great! But why is this story so FUBAR? What the hell is going on inside the head of this writer? Is he on drugs? Is he a madman who has maybe, God forbid, an illness that prevents him from composing coherent sentences? Or maybe he's an inarticulate genius who lacks the discipline to organize his very deep thoughts?

I'm betting it's the drugs.

[Yes, yes, I know. "That was mean, Mystery Man, although it was kinda funny because... it's true."]

You know what? I'm going to assume this man's a genius. That's right. I'm going to assume he's brilliant simply because he peppered his story with very big words, like "ectomorphs," "endomorphs," and "mesomorphs." You may also recall that when the rock was broken and later flattened, it wasn't just flattened to a pancake, it was flattened to the shape of an "ovoid obsidian pancake." I looked up more words reading this crazy thing than I have any other TriggerStreet story. And because I'm assuming you're brilliant, I'm going to give you across the board average ratings, because, despite your great intelligence, you seriously need to get help organizing your deep thoughts. You need to simplify those big ideas and big words so that the rest of us mere mortals can understand your stories and play along with you. Instead of trying to impress us with how much you know and how deep your thoughts can be and how many wild concepts you can throw into your story, try to impress us by how well you can illustrate beautiful simplicity with your own personal visual style of storytelling.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Subtext - Pride & Prejudice

Let us talk about love. Let us go old school, Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, Jane and Lizzy, and… lots of dancing. Make no mistake, my friends, Jane Austen’s brilliant novel was never about Pride nor Prejudice. At its core is the very chick-flickiest of all chick-flick notions – how to hook the man of your dreams. This is why, not one, but two of my female friends read P&P every year. For girls in the early 1800’s, this was their Cosmo. This was Man-Hooking 101 for advanced students. This was master chess-playing at its finest level for love strategists the world over.

Last year, we had the superb adaptation penned by Deborah Moggach who is known for a number of great novels including Tulip Fever, which is also being adapted for the big screen. Unfortunately, Moggach's script is not available online, but you can read Austen’s novel here for free in .txt or .pdf format thanks to Project Gutenberg. In any case, you have to admire the way Moggach condensed Austen’s material to a manageable 2-hour movie and at the same time, made it so much fun.

I think Darcy is the character with the most depth because of the many contradictions in his personality. At times, he’s selfish and other times, generous. He’s thoughtless and thoughtful. He’s cruel and kind. He’s loyal and disloyal. He’s mysterious and yet everybody thinks that they know what he’s really about. He is the ultimate challenge. And we empathize with Lizzy. She’s not as beautiful as her older sister, Jane. She is every girl with modest circumstances fighting for love. She is a ferocious thinker and strategist. She is equal parts strong-willed and vulnerable, and don’t forget, a master chess player.

P&P, for me, is the movie (& novel) with the best subtext in dialogue.

I’d like to point you to an element Moggach added to the latest movie that is not in the book, which I thought was so brilliant – all the talk about dancing, which Moggach used as a symbolic representation of Darcy’s courtship to Lizzy.

At the first ball, Jane immediately hits it off with Mr. Bingley (pictured above) and as they dance together, Lizzy walks up to Darcy and asks him a subtle question...

Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?

Not if I can help it.

Here, dancing was simply an invitation to flirt, but she was rejected and she walks away.

Later, Lizzy and her sister Charlotte overhear Darcy talking to Bingley...

I’ve never seen so many pretty
girls in my life.

You were dancing with the only
handsome girl in the room.

She is the most beautiful creature
I have ever beheld. But her
sister, Elizabeth, is very

Perfectly tolerable, I dare say,
but not handsome enough to tempt
me. You’d better return to your
partner and enjoy her smiles.
You’re wasting your time with me.

Count your blessings, Lizzy. If
he liked you, you’d have to talk to

Precisely. As it is, I wouldn’t
dance with him for all of
Derbyshire, let alone the miserable

At the end of the night, Jane, Lizzy, their mother Mrs. Bennet, talk to Darcy and Bingley. Mrs. Bennet tells a story about a gentleman who tried unsuccessfully to woo Jane and wrote her some bad poems...

...however, he did write to her
some very pretty verses.

And that put paid to it. I wonder
who first discovered the power of
poetry in driving away love?

I thought poetry was the food of

Of a fine, stout love, it may. But
if it is only a vague inclination
I’m convinced one poor sonnet will
kill it stone dead.

So what do you recommend to
encourage affection?

Dancing... Even if one’s partner
is barely tolerable.

Lizzy curtsies, walks away, and smiles.

She swore to loathe him for all eternity. After a few more clashes with Darcy, the next ball brought the most surprising turn of events...

May I have the next dance, Miss

You may.

And as they dance together for the first time, it is not love at first sight. It is, in fact, a verbal war of wits. Here, I think, is Lizzy's great declaration of independence, her showing Darcy that she will not be intimidated by his great wealth, that she will not be treated like a worthless lower class citizen, that the decision of whether they fall in love is actually up to her, that he needs to shape up if he wants her, and that if she is to accept him, he had better be a man with good character. And she says all of these things without actually saying it…

I love this dance.

Indeed. Most invigorating.

It is your turn to say something,
Mr. Darcy... I talked about the
dance, now you ought to remark on
the size of the room or the number
of couples.

I am perfectly happy to oblige.
Please advise me of what you would
most like to hear.

That reply will do for present...
Perhaps by and by, I may observe
that private balls are much
pleasanter than public ones.
For now we may remain silent.

Do you talk, as a rule, while

No... No, I prefer to be
unsociable and taciturn... Makes
it all so much more enjoyable,
don’t you think?

Tell me, do you and your sisters
very often walk to Meryton?

Yes, we often walk to Meryton...
It’s a great opportunity to meet
new people. In fact, when you met
us, we’d just had the pleasure of
forming a new acquaintance.

Mr. Wickham is blessed with such
happy manners he is sure of making
friends. Whether he’s capable of
retaining them is less certain.

He’s been so unfortunate as to lose
your friendship. And I daresay
that is an irreversible event?

It is. Why do you ask such a

To make out your character, Mr.

They stop dancing while everyone else continues.

And what have you discovered?

Very little. I hear such different
accounts of you as puzzle me

I hope to afford you more clarity
in the future.

They resume dancing. They stare at each other, and suddenly, all of the other guests around them disappear. They’re alone in the hall as they circle each other.

The music stops. Everyone reappears.

They bow to each other.

(There is still much more subtext to come. Next will be a submission by the great Billy Mernit! And if you think of more submissions, please feel free to email them to me.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Subtext - Chinatown

Let us now feel the love for Nena Eskridge, a wonderful writer, beautiful human being, and author of the superb script, The Last Stop, which was a recent Top Ten Favorite on TriggerStreet. It's the story of Jennifer Davis, a girl who was tortured as a child and grows up into a runaway, and she’s caught up in her own horrible cycle of violence, which she is trying so hard to escape. It's one of the few specs I've come across where the writer made a conscious choice to connect the first scene with the last in order to make a very specific statement about the protagonist. It’s great. I love her story.

In any case, below is Nena’s submission. She chose some unknown unloved uninteresting and poorly-written little movie called… Chinatown.


Subtext, huh? That's a tough one. In my own writing I never set out to do it, only recognize it after I've stumbled into it.

There's always
Chinatown (by the great Robert Towne), which is packed with subtext. Below is one of many examples. For me, this scene was one of the most disturbing in any movie. Cross accuses Gittes of taking advantage of his daughter, the one HE molested and impregnated. Then, he asks Gittes if he's sleeping with her, when he clearly has been. Says she's a disturbed woman - who would know better since HE is responsible for her being disturbed. And last but not least, he pretty much sums up the theme of the entire movie by saying to Gittes, "You may think you know what you're dealing with -- but believe me, you don't."

Every line in Chinatown is memorable. Could watch that movie every day for the rest of my life. That one and The Collector. Don't get me going on that one.

It disturbs me, Mr. Gittes. It
makes me think you're taking my
daughter for a ride – financially
speaking, of course. How much are
you charging her?

My usual fee -- plus a bonus
if I come up with any results.

Are you sleeping with her? Come,
come, Mr. Gittes -- you don't have
to think about that to remember,
do you?

Gittes laughs.

If you want an answer to that
question I can always put one
of my men on the job. Good
afternoon, Mr. Cross.

Mr. Gittes! You're dealing with
a disturbed woman who's lost her
husband. I don't want her taken
advantage of. Sit down.

What for?

-- You may think you know what
you're dealing with – but
believe me, you don't.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Subtext - James Bond

All right, gang, how about a scene offered up from the great Mickey Lee, who many of you may have noticed posting various comments here. Mickey is a devoted student of the craft, future screenwriter hall of famer, and all around great guy.

Thanks so much, Mickey. I love this scene...

This scene, from the movie “Thunderball”, written by the brilliant Richard Maibaum, is my favorite dialogue exchange in the entire Bond series.

Just to set up this scene, Bond escaped an underwater attack by SPECTRE by swimming to shore. Totally soaked, he hails a car, which just happens to be driven by the villain’s right-hand woman, Fiona Volpe.

Bond knows she’s the bad girl, and she knows he’s the good guy, but it’s too early in the game from them to reveal themselves to each other. Their dialogue sizzles with subtextual threats and one-upmanship.

I couldn’t find a copy of the original script, so I transcribed it from the DVD. The dialogue is original, but the descriptions in brackets are my own.

[Bond removes his wetsuit, and walks to the street. He flags down an approaching Ford Mustang. When it stops, he steps around to the passenger side to speak to the driver.]

Can I have a lift?


[Bond gets into the car. Fiona Volpe sits behind the wheel.]

Thank you. You just about
saved my life.


[Fiona hits the gas and the car takes off.]

My outboard capsized so I had to
swim ashore. How far do you go?

You'd better fasten your safety
belt. What's your name?

[Bond eyes the speedometer as it passes 60 m.p.h.]

James Bond.

Fiona Volpe.

[The speedometer passes 80 mph. The car hurtles down the dark, country road. Bond eyes Fiona’s octopus-logo ring, identifying her as a member of SPECTRE. The car takes a hairpin turn.]

Do you fly here often?

Do I make you nervous?

No. It's just that I have no desire
to be capsized twice in one night.

At least you won't have to swim ashore.

[Bond looks down the road. The car picks up speed]

Have you been here before, Mr Bond?

No, I haven't. But this is the road to Nassau?

Yes. Eventually.

[The speedometer passes 90 on its way to 100 mph. The car flies down the dusty road. Fiona checks Bond for a reaction, but gets none. Bond doesn’t break a sweat. With a squeal of the brakes, the Mustang comes to a stop in front of the hotel.]

Well, this is as far as I go.

Yes, me too. This is my hotel.

What a coincidence!

Yes. So convenient.

[Bond and Fiona both exit the car and walk toward the hotel entrance.]

You look pale, Mr. Bond. I hope I
didn't frighten you.

Well, you see, I've always been a
nervous passenger.

Some men just don't like to be driven.

No, some men just don't like to be
taken for a ride.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Subtext – Body Heat

Hehehe... This'll be fun.

Say “hello” to the Unknown Screenwriter, a guy who, like me, must keep his identity a mystery or… he’ll have to kill you. Unk’s a smart fox and his blog is great fun.

I have said before that seduction is really about the fine art of subtext. A guy should never walk up to a woman and say what he’s really thinking: “You’re hot. I’m horny. Let’s have sex.” She wants to connect with you first… And here we have from
Body Heat, which was written by the great Lawrence Kasdan, Racine’s attempt to seduce Matty, which was, frankly, not much better than the Begging Horny Dog Approach of the Average Frustrated Chump.

But WAIT, there’s a bonus! Like that
scene in Annie Hall, Unk gives us the subtext of every single line, and it’s HYSTERICAL. (His notes are in blue after each line.) You will also realize that Racine’s bad approach was essential to the story.

Here are Unk’s thoughts…

Of course, anyone could interpret the subtext differently and still have a similar meaning... The subtext in the notes I made is in the context of the scene itself. We know, after having watched BODY HEAT that Matty had premeditated the entire plan to put Racine in the hot seat after her fake death from the boat house being blown up.

So when you look at the scene with that perspective, the subtext becomes amazing because to me, Matty is totally sizing up Racine in this scene to see if he really will think with the other head.




The hottest January in fifty years has brought the crowds to the beach in search of relief. But they've been disappointed. Even the breeze off the ocean seems blown from a hair dryer. Still, the nights are a trifle better and the Beachfront, the penny arcades, the ice cream stands and bars are busy, even now in the middle of the week.

Racine comes out of a bar and lights a cigarette, idly watching the passing parade. There is a free band concert in progress at the band shell. Racine wanders in that direction.


The Miranda Beach High School Orchestra is playing to a full, sweating house; the audience is a sea of orange programs fluttering away as fans. People come and go

The atmosphere is as innocent and informal as the music the band is playing now.

Racine leans against the back rail, smoking, his eyes playing over the scene with no expectations.

Then, down near the center aisle, a WOMAN rises. As the band plays on, this extraordinary, beautiful woman, in a simple white dress, moves down the aisle. She moves wonderfully. The dress clings to her body in the heat.

Racine watches, mesmerized, as she walks directly toward him. She passes within a few inches of him, her eyes lowered. Racine's body sways a moment as she goes by, as though buffeted by some force. But they do not touch. She goes out onto the Beachfront walkway.


The Woman, MATTY, has walked to the rail. She stands there now lighting a cigarette.

She presents her face to the ocean, hoping for a breeze. We move in on her, with Racine.

Racine lights a new cigarette and smiles at her. She looks at him and, for an instant, her eyes race over his body, then she looks back at the ocean.

You can stand here with me if
you want, but you'll have to
agree not to talk about the heat.

[I’ve noticed you. You are gorgeous and I want to get to know you better. Actually, I’m horny, and I want to do you.]

She looks at him, and there is something startling about the directness of her gaze. When she speaks, she is cool without being hostile.

I'm a married woman.

[I’m married. Are you still interested?]

Meaning what?

[Hell, yes, I’m still interested as long as you’re willing.]

Meaning I'm not looking for company.
She turns back toward the ocean.

[I might be interested as long as there are no strings.]

Then you should have said --
'I'm a HAPPILY married woman.'

[I kind of thought you might be interested. You look a little horny.]

That's my business.

[So what if I’m horny?]


[So you ARE a little horny… I knew it!]

How happy I am.

[Please, it really doesn’t concern you.]

And how, happy is that?

[It does concern me right here right now. I’m horny… You’re horny. Let’s be horny together!]

She looks at him curiously. She begins walking slowly along the rail. He walks too.

You're not too smart, are you?

[Maybe I don’t want to be horny with you.]

Racine shakes his head "no."

I like that in a man.

[I like guys that are less intelligent than myself. *Note: This little bit of dialogue takes on a whole new meaning by the end of the film when Matty is sitting on an island sipping a drink… Of course we do not know this yet… LOL. She’s basically saying out loud to herself, “Wow, I finally found my perfect pigeon for my premeditated plan to have you kill my husband so I can inherit ALL of his money.”]

What else you like -- Ugly?
Lazy? Horny? I got 'em all.

[I will do ANYTHING or be ANYBODY if you will let me have sex with you.]

You don't look lazy.

[I can see that you are horny and ugly.]

Racine smiles.

Tell me, does chat like that
work with most women?

[That is about the most stupid pick-up line I have ever heard.]

Some. If they haven't been
around much.

[It works on the locals around here.]

I wondered. Thought maybe I was
out of touch.

[Well, buddy, I am not one of your usual little local bimbos.]

She stops again at the rail as a small breeze blows in from the ocean. She turns her back to it and, with her cigarette dangling from her lips, she uses both hands to lift her hair up off her nape. She closes her eyes as the air hits her. Racine watches very closely.

How 'bout I buy you a drink?

[Can we please be horny with each other?]

I told you. I've got a husband.

[You’re going to have to do better than that to get horny with me. Try harder.]

I'll buy him one too.

[I don’t care if you are married. I like you. You are attractive and maybe, just maybe, if I can step sell you to have a drink with me, we will eventually have sex! By the way, is your husband around here some where?]

He's out of town.

[I’m all alone and maybe just a little horny but still, you haven’t convinced me that we should be horny together.]

My favorite kind. We'll drink
to him.

[I really like the fact that he’s not available now. Now you and I can get to know each other a little bit better without him putting a damper on my plan to have sex with you!]

He only comes up on the weekends.

[Hmmm. You know, I am kind of horny and hell, the old guy is never around anyway except on the weekends. I’m getting kind of used to you now anyway. Maybe we should HOOK UP! *Note: Of course, this is Matty’s way of letting Racine know she’s interested now… Part of her master plan to frame him later on.]

Matty lets her hair fall and again begins moving down walkway. She drops her cigarette and steps on it.

I'm liking him better all the
time.You better take me up on this
quick. In another forty-five
minutes I'm going to give up and
walk away.

[Now you’re talking! My step selling plan to bed you tonight is starting to work! But no matter what happens NOW, I am not giving up here. No way – no how!]

You want to buy me something?
I'll take one of these.

[I’m so hot right now… Hot from the heat AND all of your pick-up lines. Buy me a snow cone and cool me off! *Note: Of course, this is also part of Matty’s plan. She’s using herself as a piece of meat to entice the DOG inside Racine.]

They have come upon a Vendor selling snow cones.

What kind?

[I will buy ANYTHING you want… Especially if it helps me get into your pants later tonight.]


[Visualize me sucking on a cherry…]

(to Vendor)
Make it two.

[No problem. I’ll get two just in case! I love CHERRY!]

The Vendor scoops and pours as Racine lays some change on the cart.

(to Matty)
You're not staying in Miranda
(she shakes her head
I would have noticed you.

[You don’t hang with us locals down here in the slums, do you? Besides, I would have definitely seen you before if you had because I am always on the lookout for hot, rich women like yourself.]

Is this town that small?

[Boy, you must really get around. Either that or your full of shit.]

Racine hands her a snow cone. They walk over to the rail. Racine watches her eat the snow cone with enormous interest.

Pinehaven. You're staying up in
Pinehaven, on the waterway.
(she gives him a look,
You have a house.

[Here’s how smart I am. I can tell by the way you act, the way you dress, the way you talk, etc, that you must be well off. I LIKE THAT!]

How'd you know?

[A gorgeous woman like me has her standards, ya know.]

You look like Pinehaven.

[Well, even though I mostly tackle the local fare, I’ve always dreamed of taking down a big score like yourself. How am I doing so far?]

How does Pinehaven look?

[I think you’re full of shit but okay, tell me more about how I look to you.]

Well tended.

[You look exactly how I said you look. I’m right and you know it.]

She looks out at the ocean.

Yes, I'm well tended, all right.
Well tended. What about you?

[Yeah, okay… So you’re right about me. Any idiot could have figured that out. Tell me something about yourself.]

Me? I need tending. I need
someone to take care of me. Rub
my tired muscles. Smooth out my

[I’m a local sheister… A little down on his luck. I could use a big score like you. I’d never have to work again. Interested?]

Get married.

[Nope, I’m not interested.]

I just need it for tonight.

[Come on. Your husband isn’t home. I’m horny. I think you’re horny. Let’s just DO IT!]

For the first time, Matty laughs. A moment later, she spills the snow cone over the front of her dress. It makes a bright red stain against the white. The thin material clings to the line of her breast.

Good. Nice move, Matty.

[I am such a klutz… Oh, and by the way… My name is Matty.]

Matty. I like it. Right over
your heart.

[Thanks for telling me your name. It’s a nice name. That spot is right over your breast. I would love to see that breast.]

At least it's cool. I'm burning

[You don’t care what my name is. You just want to do me. It’s written all over your face.]

I asked you not to talk about
the heat.

[I know, I know. I’m so transparent. Please don’t remind me.]

Would you get me a paper towel
or something? Dip it in some
cold water.

[Hmmm. I’m actually hatching a plan to murder my husband and I sure need somebody stupid and transparent. Someone like YOU. I guess as long as you end up doing my bidding, we can start doing it. After all, the payoff is huge and I’m not going to share it with you. So could you please get me a paper towel?]

Racine starts toward the restroom nearby.

Right away. I'll even wipe it
off for you.

[Are you kidding? I’m so horny to have sex with you right now that I don’t care what kind of plan you’re hatching up! All I know is that I wanna bang you. I’ll get the paper towel and after I get it, I will do ANYTHING you want me to do.]

You don't want to lick it?

[You’re hired!]

This causes a momentary hitch in Racine's retreat, but then he hurries off.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Subtext – Ordinary People

This next selection is from Pat (aka "GimmeABreak" on TriggerStreet) a person I genuinely admire. Pat’s a thorough script reviewer and a tireless, fearless writer, one who isn’t afraid to tackle modern interpretations of (simple little stories like) HAMLET.

Recently, to Pat’s great credit, My Friend Gerald shot up through the ranks to TriggerStreet’s Top Ten Favorite's List (ranked, of course, by other reviewers on the site). My Friend Gerald is about “a British nobleman with artistic aspirations (who) battles depression, tradition, and his mother's Victorian influences as he tries to find acceptance amongst the world's creative elite.”

Here’s Pat’s contribution:

My selection: the final two scenes from Ordinary People where Donald Sutherland (Calvin) has finally figured out that Timothy Hutton (Conrad) is right about Mary Tyler Moore (Beth). I watched this movie again last week and took notes because my current project has a character very much like MTM's Beth. Almost the entire movie, with the exceptions of a few scenes in the psychiatrist's office, is a study of people never saying what they mean. Real feelings/meanings are conveyed by body language, gestures, nervous tics, facial expressions, what is omitted instead of what is said.

What an amazing piece of work - I hated it the first time I saw it but really appreciate it now. I also bought the book to see how the novel compared to the movie but I haven't had time to read it yet.

It's early morning, Beth notices Cal isn't in bed. She finds him downstairs at the dining room table, crying.

Calvin? Why are you crying?
Can I. Uh... Can I get you something?

I don't...

What did you say? Calvin. What did you say?

He sighs.

Tell me.

You are beautiful... And you are unpredictable.
But you're so cautious. You're determined, Beth...
but you know something? You're not strong.
I don't know if you're really giving.
Tell me something. Do you love me?
Do you really love me?

I feel the way I've always felt about you.

We would've been all right...
if there hadn't been any mess.
But you can't handle mess.
You need everything neat and easy.
I don't know. Maybe you can't love anybody.
It was so much Buck. It's as if you buried
all your love with him. I don't understand that.
Maybe it wasn't even Buck. Maybe it was just you.
Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried.
But whatever it was... I don't know who you are.
I don't know what we've been playing at.
So I was crying. Because I don't know
if I love you anymore. And I don't know
what I'll do without that.

Beth looks at Cal, unable to speak. Her stony facade barely cracked, she turns, walks up the stairs and packs her bags.

Con hears the front door slam and finds his father sitting outside, in his pajamas, in freezing temperatures.


The yard looks smaller without leaves.

Dad. What happened?

Your mother's going away for a while.

Where? Why?

Back to Houston. I don't know.

Why? What... I know why. It's me. Isn't it?


It's my fault.

Don't do that to yourself! It's nobody's fault!
Things happen. People don't always have answers.
I don't know why I'm yelling at you.

You should do that more often.
Haul my ass a little. Get after me.
Like you did for him.

He needed it. You didn't.
You were always so hard on yourself.
I never had the heart.

Oh. Dad. Don't.

Well. It's the truth. I never worried about you.
I just wasn't listening.

I wasn't sending many signals then.
You couldn't do anything.

I should've got a handle on it somehow.

I used to figure you had a handle for everything.
You knew it all. You always made us feel
everything would be all right. I've thought about that
a lot lately. I really admire you for it.

Don't admire people too much.
They'll disappoint you sometimes.

I'm not disappointed. I love you.

I love you, too.

Subtext – Crazy Mel’s Tirade

I cannot resist blogging about this. I apologize for being a little off-topic.

We all know that Mel
went crazy last Friday on the Pacific Coast Highway. He screamed at Deputy Mee, “Are you a Jew?” He also said, “F***ing Jews… The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” These statements are not only in the Deputy’s report but also corroborated by audiotape. So now the entire world is wondering, “was Mel’s drunken rant a revelation of true character and his true feelings about the Jews? Does this mean he has those same crazy ideas about the holocaust like his father?”

In other words, the world wants to know:

“What’s the subtext to Mel’s tirade?”

Consider the scene. Mel’s pulled over for speeding and reckless driving. This is a man who has been propelled into the heights of wealth and superstardom. After Passion he obtained obscene wealth overnight and suffered extreme media scrutiny and was forced to go into extreme isolation. Then the fanatics came at him from all over to find him and in some cases stalk him to the point where he had to up his private security and issue restraining orders. There was also extreme hatred and accusations of anti-Semiticism. Need we forget the vitriolic hatred flung at Spielberg for Munich? “Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth,” wrote Jack Engelhard in ynet news.

It’s a rough world out there, and a passion project is not for the weak or the faint of heart.

So here’s Mel pulled over on the Pacific Coast Highway. He’s been pulled over for this kind of thing
at least twice before, and they always let him go. He’s accustomed to being treated with kid gloves. However, on this day, Deputy Mee is taking this matter very seriously (as well he should). The realization settles in with Mel that he is actually going to arrest him and this scandal may very well ruin his career.

Then the tirade begins.

Mel may have anti-Semitic views, he may not. We don’t really know from this horrible moment because I would suggest to you (if I was analyzing this as a scene) that his tirade was really about his feeling that the Deputy was treating him “unfairly” to the point of suspecting that he's Jewish and bent on taking him in and humiliating him for making Passion. Everyone else let him go. Why is this man taking him in? His tirade is more about his own paranoia than anything else. He’s behaving like a cornered animal. He's trying to do everything he can to get out of this disaster that he got himself in to. His words were meant to antagonize the Deputy into doing something stupid so he could have an easy excuse to get out of trouble. When you try to rile someone into a fight, you say things you may not actually believe because the point is to incite a reaction. And you have to hand it to Deputy Mee. He kept his composure while dealing with a very volatile situation that could’ve gotten much uglier than it already was.

Everything Mel did last Friday was reprehensible and he deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, when a person reaches the height of superstardom like Mel has, this kind of behavior is actually not that surprising. I’m reminded of a comment made by Tina Brown (from Vanity Fair)
about Princess Diana in the early days after she married Charles. She described how her ascension to superstardom will affect her as it affects everyone, that the first stage in her removal from life “is an adversarial mood toward the press. The second stage is ‘Graceland,’ when the real world melts away altogether.”

Make no mistake, Mel Gibson is IN Graceland.