Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Great Character Arc Controversy

Hey guys,

Well, I can see that lips are flapping over my article called “The Case AGAINST Character Arcs” in the latest issue of Script Magazine. I’ve been told of a few debates on message boards, like
here and here.

But nothing prepared me for the flood of e-mails in my inbox. So I shall try to address common questions and responses. I have no problem at all with people disagreeing or putting my feet to the fire to test whether what I said is true. I think that’s a good thing.

Hope you enjoy it.



Uhh, who the hell is Joshua James?
Well, you could’ve looked him up
on the IMDB. He’s also here where you can also view his library of full length plays. He also has scripts posted periodically at his profile on TriggerStreet.

McKee never said that every character must change.
I never once mentioned Robert McKee in my article. I was mostly talking about industry-wide attitudes about arcs. But I was alluding to McKee because I approached arcs in terms of changes to the inner nature, which McKee preaches. He wrote, “The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes [to] that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.” That’s bullshit. I suppose if you want to get real nitpicky with me about McKee’s quote, you could argue that he was not saying that you CAN’T have character arcs. He was merely saying that only the finest writing showcases an arc, an inner change in the protagonist. That’s STILL bullshit.

But that’s true. Stories with arcs are better.
No, that’s not true, and this is one of my points. You cannot apply the same “principles” to all genres. This is why listening to the gurus has been an intellectual step backwards to the art of storytelling because they take one principle, like character arcs, and apply it across the board to every story in every genre. Each genre has its own unique requirements and parameters. It would be incorrect to say, for example, that a mystery story would be better if you had an arc in the protagonist-investigator. It just wouldn’t. The point of these stories is the mystery itself and the investigation’s usually led by a dynamic character. To go with that character on the journey of solving the mystery can be such great fun. That’s the point! Can you imagine Sherlock Holmes having an arc in every single mystery? One could argue that an arc in Holmes in every story would detract too much from the mystery. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t have an arc or that you shouldn’t have an arc. The bigger point is, you shouldn’t REQUIRE AN ARC in mysteries. Or stick your nose up because a writer didn’t force an arc in the protag in a mystery.

But people aren’t making mystery films anymore.
Everything is cyclical.

Ghandi changed. He started out as a guy who was content within the existing system until it was demonstrated to him how unjust it was. He went from passive to becoming a fighter against injustice.
That’s not true. Beforehand, Ghandi was a lawyer fighting for what he thought was right before he switched to civil disobedience. While his reaction to the system changed, he never changed who he was.

You said that Ghandi matured and Clarice became wiser. Isn’t that an arc? Isn’t growth an arc?
Only if a change of some kind occurs. “Growth” is a wonderful thing for a character in a story, but it’s also a very broad term. A character changing from intolerant to tolerant could be viewed as “growth” as much as an arc. But an arc is a curve in the line, a change of some kind. But sometimes growth is a straight line. Sometimes a character endures an experience without changing. Say something happens. A protag must go on a path to correct something and meet a goal. He encounters obstacles and finally meets his goal. The character becomes wiser about the path, certainly, but does he change just by going down that path? Not necessarily. Sometimes a great story is a character staying true to oneself and not compromising, not changing, while going down a difficult path. There is growth in being tested and passing the test because the character will be stronger when tested again. But that doesn’t mean they changed who they are.

3:10 to Yuma fell apart in the third act, so that’s not really a good example, especially considering Crowe's character's totally unnatural personality transplant.
Even though Ebert gave it 4-stars, I personally never felt it was a perfect 4-star film. The original is a classic, though. And the author of the short story upon which the film was based, Elmore Leonard, had characters in his westerns who didn’t have backstories, psychological motivations, or sometimes, arcs. They were who they were. And they did what they did. There was a great article about that very thing
in The New York Times. Terrence Rafferty wrote, “what’s striking about it is how little explanation Mr. Leonard feels compelled to offer for his hero’s grit and competence, and how little too the reader misses it.” With respect to Russell Crowe's character, I have to agree. It would've been better had he NOT had an arc. Hehehe...

Indiana Jones -- probably. But Raiders ended with a deus ex machina, anyway. Not only did Jones not change, he wasn't even crucial to the resolution (whether or not he was there, the Nazis would have opened the Ark and died). So there, I'd submit, the script was faulty despite the rip-roaring great ride of the movie.
Was it really faulty? You didn’t think so BEFORE your mind was warped by gurus and their ideas about arcs. Hehehe

Indiana Jones doesn't believe in the POWER OF GOD in the beginning of the movie but he sure as hell believes in it by the end of the movie... LOL.
But did he change as a result? The sequels prove he doesn’t.

Indiana Jones has an arc. He goes from only caring about artifacts to caring about a human being -- Marion Ravenwood. At first she's only a means to an end, but by the end he cares about her for herself.
Look at that last scene again, as he and Marion are walking down those steps after the meeting with the government boys who assured him about “top men.” Indy keeps looking back. He can’t stop thinking about the Ark. And poor Marion has to pull his hat up and redirect his attention back to her. Does he really change?

Unk: Butch and Sundance go out fighting in the end... Did they have a choice? We don't know. Could they have come out with their hands up? Maybe -- maybe not. We watch them run away and outsmart everyone throughout the movie... Their change TO ME, is a change in venue along with no more running.
I respectfully disagree. They went out fighting because they were still running and they were cornered and had no other way out. They would’ve kept on running and being crooks forever. They would’ve had an arc only if they walked out with their hands up. That would’ve meant, “We are stopping and running no more.”

You have a very narrow definition of arcs.
I really don’t. I’m only referencing the ideas of narrow-minded gurus who have created an industry of narrow-thinking formula freaks.

I've always read the Hero's Journey as some kind of Jungian initiation where the hero discovers her/his inner strength/true self etc. Like in Star Wars where Luke finds "the force" in himself and becomes a Jedi. But I guess you can interpret it more literally, like when hero returns with some "elixir" and saves the day, but remains the same herself.
A lot of great action films are about heroes who are heroes without changing to become a hero. They just are. They just do it. It's who they are. It's in their blood. And the action genre evolved when the definition of “hero” evolved and how the new hero is different from the others. What is a hero in today's society? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the hero’s arc. But should every action film require one? Not at all. I'd argue that more important than an arc is character depth.

There is, though, a certain tendency among beginners (at anything) to think they can be the exceptions without ever having followed the rules.
Here, here. Newbies should master the basics. However, if a newbie wants to write mysteries, the industry should be wise enough to know that mysteries don’t require arcs in the protagonists. The industry needs to quit being so damn ignorant. This isn’t about breaking the rules. This is about the rules being wrong. This is about everyone not knowing the unique rules for each genre.

I’d like to close with this. I got a fabulous e-mail that I really loved from a guy named Salvador Rubio:

For me, there are three kinds of character:

1-The one who changes (Let's call him the Hero): A character is shown having a flaw which he has to overcome after great difficulties and reluctance. Paul Newman in The Veredict is a great example.

2-The one who can't change (The Tragic characters). A character whose own personality doesn't let him change, no matter how hard he tries or how much he know he has to change. Is the preferred character for tv-shows (picture Dr. House and his inability to be show his feelings and be humane, although it is repeatedly shown that he would like to do it). As for movies, characters of this type sometimes they prefer to stick with their flaws and keep living no matter how badly they have to change. There are plenty, but let's say Kane in Citizen Kane.

3-The one that doesn't really need to change: James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc. There's a second variety to this, in which the character needs to change but doesn't do it because he doesn't realize his flaws, although everyone does: Don Quixote and his derivates.

As every theory, this is not perfect, but works for me in most cases.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Screenwriting News & Links! 1/15/09

Hey guys,

(Geez, ScriptGirl's really busting out today, isn't she?)

Let me say I am overwhelmed by the e-mails I’m getting in response to my "Character Arc" article in Script Magazine. A frickin’ tidal wave of correspondence has flooded my inbox. I honestly wasn’t expecting this. Even the Hotmail people sent me a message titled “WTF is going on with your inbox?” So if I have not responded to your e-mail, take heart, I will get to you. And I will try to respond to all the e-mails. And I will respond to all the comments on my blog. I promise!

So far, I’m proud to say most of you loved the article while a few are royally pissed off. Thus, I shall post another article soon addressing some of the "Character Arc" questions. But I haven’t heard any arguments yet that point to truly solid mistakes in the article. Yet.

The most common complaint? “Hey, you went through all the Indiana Jones movies except Indy IV.” Exactly.

BTW – I’m
on Twitter now.



MM in the news:

Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated:

Mystery: Man found dead and bloodied on bathroom floor
Mystery man killed on rail line
Police hunt name for Mystery Man

I know some of you are angry about the new Character Arc article, but really, this is a bit much, isn’t it?

Pam Anderson, Her Mystery Man & Matthew Mcconaughey At Malibu
I don’t even feel threatened by the presence of Mr. McConaughey.

Fire girl seeks Mystery Man
You and so many others…

Case solved … Mystery Man is Swiss teen ace
I do love watches and I have one of those secret bank accounts.

Topless Amy Winehouse Cuddles on Beach with Mystery Man
And you thought her makeup was scary…

All you aspiring screenwriters trying to break in will love this:

Boy with autism writes film screenplay based on favorite books
Keaton Bicknell, 11, who has autism, is determined to become a screenwriter. So he received permission from the author of his favorite children's books to turn her work into a script, and with the help of his father, who is in the film business, and his 13-year-old sister, Keaton hoped to shoot the 15- to 20-minute film this past weekend.

Notorious Writer Responds To Lil' Kim's Accusations
Screenwriter Reggie Rock Bythewood says Kim saw an early version of the script. The Queen Bee unleashed her venom on the team behind the Biggie biopic, "Notorious," saying "most of the story is bullsh--" and complaining that the actress who played her in the film never even reached out to her. In a recent cover story with Hip-Hop Weekly, Kim — who said she has not seen the film — said she believed Big's wife, Faith Evans, and his mother, Voletta Wallace, were behind the snub…

Speaking of Notorious, there’s a great round-up of new articles

According to John August,
Shazam is dead. (Whew!)

Below is an
Olly Moss Poster Remake

Coincidentally, Len just e-mailed me with retro
Polish Movie posters:

And then there’s
Alamo Drafthouse’s Godfather posters:

Hollywood’s 3D Headaches

Everything’s going to hell
for film critics in the print media.

Frost Vs Fenton
Although Frost says only about 10 per cent of the movie is fiction, screenwriter and playwright Peter Morgan has heightened certain elements for the sake of drama. So instead of showing Frost as competent, professional and methodical, backed up by a year’s worth of research, he instead frames the story a little bit like Richard Wilkins extracting a mea culpa from George W Bush over Iraq. It makes the eventual "gotcha" moment many times more effective, despite the audience knowing from history how the interview will pan out.

Yeah, baby! An
Early Howard Hawks Blog-a-thon!

Screenwriter shouts, “Stop making me write Star Trek!”
It was either George Santayana or Gene Roddenberry who said, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." The Hollywood version is, those who remember history are doomed to remake it. It's that mindset that gives you a Lost in Space movie. A Land of the Lost movie. Jurassic Park III. The Phantom Menace. It churns out a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still that might have been moderately intriguing under another title, but as it exists is nowhere near as good as the original. Remakes and endless sequels are the easy calories of the storytelling business. They encourage writers to be lazy, too. So, how does my cranky, undeniably futile bleat relate to business? How does it connect to the economic situation? By strip-mining past properties we've created our own sci-fi bubble. We've inflated valuable properties far behind their multiples. (Did we need 10 Trek movies?) And each $100 million remake means two fewer $50 million new properties—or 10 less-than-$10 million projects. That's an economic model that recalls Detroit and the American auto industry. Setting aside the financial burden, consider how difficult it is for a new property to get noticed, much less watched and appreciated. Big remakes suck up the airwaves. The billboards. They generate so much noise that no other voices can be heard.

Reverse Shot’s
11 Offenses of 2008

Theology and Screenwriting

How To Establish the Dramatic Premise
So, you need to take your character on a journey, by establishing the dramatic premise, then roughly timing turning points in the story and in your main character. Page 1, a visual metaphor that defines the theme of the story. Page 3, a line of dialogue, or an action that directly pinpoints the theme of your story. About Page 10, establish the dramatic premise. At about Page 30, something extraordinary should happen that spins your character and story around 360 degrees and sends it off in another direction. At about page 45, foreshadow how your main character is going to be at the end of your story. Just a small action, something your character does to reveal this, like when Ryan meets Princess Anne and he is unfraid of her. From this point forward, you must have your main character creating all of the action. In other words, he/she must be pro-active in all events. At about Page 60, midpoint, you must show that about all is lost for your main character regardless of the new strength he/she is showing. By about Page 75, have your main character change the way he/she is trying to accomplish his/her goal. At about Page 90 of your screenplay, your main character should have a direct confrontation with the villain (villain represents evil in fiction) or antagonist (doesn’t necessarily represent evil so much as representing the opposing force to your main character’s goal). This confrontation results in your main character winning and sets up how the story is going to end. For the next several pages, your story should build to a climax where your main character goes nose-to-nose with the villain or antagonist. Here, your main character should have an epiphany. For Ryan, it was his discovery that he must overcome Komodo in order return home to his family and friends. It is here where your main character’s fatal flaw (the flaw that has caused your main character to pursue a solution to it because it is more overpowering than any other flaw)comes to the surface and must be overcome by your main character. With Ryan, it was his fear, and he overcomes it.

Did you get all that? Good.

Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy
might have explained the movie's magic best: "There are some directors who shoot a screenwriter’s script, and there [is], once in a blue moon, a director comes along who makes it fly, and I don’t need to tell you that [Danny Boyle] made it fly. Thank you, Danny."

Screenwriter had same job anxieties as his character
Most writers would probably do little victory dances in their agents' offices if a play of their devising had movie directors circling. But in the case of Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan wasn't so sure at first whether Hollywood's interest was a compliment. Known chiefly as a screenwriter (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen), the London-born Morgan had a job strategy in developing the story of David Frost's 1977 television encounter with former president Richard Nixon for the theater. The stage in Britain remains the foremost venue for a crafter of dialogue, and Morgan wanted its validation and the added career option. ''I, in some way, took that as a slight on my theatrical chops,'' says Morgan, 45. ``The thing I didn't want people to think was that I was workshopping a screenplay in the theater.''

View the first episode of Diablo Cody’s TV show, The United States of Tara, for free at
the official site. She’s also on Twitter. And she’s doing a cameo as herself in Beverly Hills 90210. Yippee.

Hey, Slate’s
Movie Club! Woo hoo!

You've probably never heard of
La Madre Muerta, am I wrong?
When discussing the current wave of intelligent genre film coming out of Spain these days people have often asked a pair of questions, why Spain and why now? A decent number of possibilities have been put forward, from schooling to the close knit, supportive community but I think there’s a simpler explanation. Fifteen years ago, when most of the current wave were settling on what Spanish film was, directors like Juanma Bajo Ulloa were making films like La Madre Muerta. Though he may not be particularly well known outside of Spain it seems perfectly clear to me that Bajo Ulloa is a spiritual forefather to many in the current wave, that the road from Bajo Ulloa to film makers such as JA Bayona (The Orphanage), Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes) and Luis Berdejo (The New Daughter) runs straight and true.

Screenwriter floors it with Gran Torino
Schenk's father, Marv, was in Korea, but Schenk says Kowalski is a composite of other guys. He compares the character to your gym teacher, coach, shop teacher or "dad when you're putting your bike back together wrong and he's waiting for you to screw up so he can roll his eyes. We all know who that is." Schenk, who grew up in the Minneapolis suburb of Fridley, already had experience as a writer and producer for "
Let's Bowl" on Comedy Central and on a mixed martial arts TV show. He had co-written another screenplay that was sold but never produced. That only "whetted my beak to never quit," said Schenk, who moved to Los Angeles in June. A military history buff, Schenk talked with a friend about the Korean War, often called "The Forgotten War." That morphed into the story of a Korean War vet. The two outlined the story, and Schenk — who did not own a laptop — would write the script with pen and paper at Grumpy's, a neighborhood bar. Schenk wrote "98 percent of the first draft, and he's fast," says Dave Johannson, 39, who shares story credit on "Gran Torino." It took about three months for Schenk to write the screenplay, which he and Johannson then honed.

Atom Egoyan is going Hollywood
Yes, Atom Egoyan says, it's true. He's going Hollywood and this time it's on his own terms. Egoyan, 48, will direct Chloe, an erotic thriller starring Oscar nominees Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson, and Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!). The script was penned by one of Egoyan's favourite writers -- Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary). Described as "a smart, sexy thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction," Chloe, which starts filming in Toronto Feb. 9, centres on a successful doctor (Moore) who inadvertently endangers her family when she hires an alluring young escort (Seyfried) to seduce her husband (Neeson), whom she suspects of cheating. "It's a really intelligent script," Egoyan said. "It's incredible because the prostitute comes back with these amazing erotic stories about a man his wife thought she knew. She gets addicted to them and they enter into a complicated relationship."

The Business of Screenwriting
It should be apparent to anyone who follows this blog that I enjoy posting about movie analysis, screenwriting theories, and the mystery of the writing process, too. However, one area I focus on -- in part because I have found a dearth of resources on it on the Web -- is the business of screenwriting. For if you are fortunate enough to write and sell a spec script, there are certain things you need to know both to protect yourself and maximize your chances at turning screenwriting into a career. Basic things like:
* Know who the buyers (studios) are
* Familiarize yourself with top to mid-level agencies and management companies
* Track the buying marketplace
* Be aware of studio business trends
* Learn the broadstrokes of Hollywood's film history
* Know how to get hold of recent selling spec scripts
* Push yourself to generate lots of -- and hopefully some great -- story concepts
* Write everyday

Glenn Kenny finds
The Comfort of Strangers
Looking at The Comfort of Strangers nearly 20 years after its release, and shortly after the death of its screenwriter Harold Pinter, one is, first off, inclined to rue the fact that Pinter and director Paul Schrader only worked together the one time. Pinter's text, an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel—the text of which itself suggests a Hammer film as reimagined by...Harold Pinter—seems to focus Schrader beautifully, staying him from indulging the too-baroque flourishes that sometimes marred his directorial work up until this point. Instead Schrader imbues the proceedings with a brisk intensity and an atmosphere of queasiness not so fully achieved in any Pinter-scripted films since The Servant and Accident, Pinter's first two collaborations with Joseph Losey.

As a tribute to the late Harold Pinter,
FilmInFocus runs "a sequence of extracts taken from Pinter's own specially-written introductions to his Collected Screenplays, Volume I and Volume II, in which he remembers the [Joseph] Losey collaborations; and also some thoughts on the experience of working with Pinter from Paul Schrader, these taken from Schrader on Schrader (Faber and Faber, rev. ed, 2004, edited by Kevin Jackson). I loved what Schrader said: “I was pretty pleased with the way The Comfort of Strangers came out, and I loved working with Pinter. That was just a hoot - Harold is definitely a major customer…”

You can read in its entirety Watchmen producer’s
"open letter" on HitFix, about the history of the production, its Hollywood support (or lack thereof) and the current quagmire. An excerpt:
The response we got from Fox was a flat "pass." That's it. An internal Fox email documents that executives there felt the script was one of the most unintelligible pieces of shit they had read in years. Conversely, Warner Brothers called us after having read the script and said they were interested in the movie - yes, they were unsure of the screenplay, and had many questions, but wanted to set a meeting to discuss the project, which they promptly did. Did anyone at Fox ask to meet on the movie? No. Did anyone at Fox express any interest in the movie? No. Express even the slightest interest in the movie? Or the graphic novel? No.

From the lips of The Wrestler Screenwriter, Robert Siegel
"Comedians are the darkest, most miserable souls in all of entertainment," he says. "The idea that a person with a comedy background would do something dark should not come as a shock to people with any exposure to comedy or darkness…" "When I was a comedy writer, I didn't have any intentions of being a screenwriter," he says. "When I was a screenwriter, I didn't have any intentions of becoming a director. I probably won't harbor any ambitions of becoming a studio chief. "I don't plan in that kind of way. I get a tiny bit bored, and then I get very ambitious."

Another Robert Siegel Interview
RS: That was a brief period in the middle, yeah. It originated with Mickey (Rourke.) Mickey was always the guy we wanted, but it was very difficult to get the funding with Mickey as the star, which is funny in retrospect, because now it’s become “The Mickey Rourke movie.” He’s the big attraction. But when we first started, he was kind of a liability - to financiers at least. You know, who wants to make a movie starring Mickey Rourke? We couldn’t even get the really low budget that we were asking for. We weren’t really looking to make a hundred million-dollar movie here. So at a certain point it seemed to Darren that it would be impossible to get it made with Mickey. And it felt like the only alternatives were to get somebody with more box office clout or don’t make it. So there was a brief period where Nick Cage was on board. And I know Darren went to one Ring of Honor (show with him.)… And it only lasted a week or two. And I think Darren did some soul searching and I talked about it with him. And he decided that, even if we have no money or next to nothing, we’re going to make this with Mickey because it’s the right call. And it’s hard now to imagine anyone else playing that role.

Sci Fi films, err, remakes in the works

Screen Australia new film funding guidelines won't help an ailing industry, argues Robert Miller at newmatilda, where Dan Edwards bemoans "an almost total absence of intelligent debate about our local screen culture." Geez...

Hollywood rarely did Donald Westlake justice
The late Donald E. Westlake wrote his books as if for the screen, and many made it there, but Hollywood just didn't seem to get it.

On the Character Backstory
It's not about dreaming up events and episodes from the past that you can 'tack on' to your character's life. You have to explore the possible impulses behind what he or she feels, what they do and want they want. Character backstory screenwriting has to be mostly about the emotional past life of a character because the story being told in this screenplay now is (or should be) driven by impulses already set in motion. Your character's backstory should feel to you that it doesn't 'end' where the story proper begins. It needs to be still there, under the surface. And if it's strong enough it will help immeasurably in creating a powerful screenplay.

David S. Goyer interview for The Unborn
Can you talk about the genesis of this idea?
I was in Chicago, visiting The Dark Knight set, and I was at dinner with my wife. I said, “Hey, you know what would be scary? If someone did a movie about a girl who has an unborn twin, and she is being haunted by the twin.” She said, “That’s fucked up.” I said, “Yeah, and the unborn twin” – I don’t know why I said this – “his nickname should have been Jumby! Someone will say, ‘Jumby wants to be born now.’ Hey, I think I’ll go write that.” So I did.

Which reminds me, here’s
Manohla Dargis: "…the film teeters so perilously and routinely at the edge of camp, both with some of its casting choices and some unfortunate dialogue (the repeated warning that 'Jumby wants to be born now'), that it's hard to know if Mr Goyer wants to make us howl with fear or laughter."

Ya know, it always sounds good over dinner with drinks…

Good Sundance Films That Never Played Theatrically

Jolie worth her Salt
Angelina Jolie has replaced Tom Cruise in the new spy thriller Edwin A. Salt. The Changeling actress will play the role of a CIA officer who is accused of being a Russian spy and dodges being captured by superiors who are convinced she is out to assassinate the president. The film's screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, will have to make some adjustments to the script to accommodate for the fact that the main role will now be played by a female and the title will change slightly. Quoted in The Mail, a source said: "Angelina is determined to make sweeping changes before filming starts. She's demanding the writers improve the dialogue before she sets foot on set."

Yeah, that sounds like her.


On the Contest Circuit:

StoryPros Announces Quarterfinalists Announces Contest #19 Results

Scriptapalooza Runner-Up Interviewed by Champaign News-Gazette


And Finally

TCM made a nice vid honoring those who passed away last year:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gran Torino

Above is lovely music vid for Eastwood’s Gran Torino.

Over the weekend, I had to rewrite my next article for Script. (Editors said it lacked my usual “punch and panache.” Hehehe… Happy to do the rewrites, of course.) The next topic will be on Unsympathetic Protagonists, and it seemed almost serendipitous Gran Torino should get released the same weekend I’m contemplating this subject.

So I included a few words about Eastwood’s film:

As I write these words, Gran Torino was just released, and I loved it. Here is a gun-toting racist sneering at and insulting everyone around him every chance he gets. Nick Schenk’s spec was of course shot down all over Hollywood by “pro readers” who, I’m sure, were filled with visions of lollipops and sympathetic protagonists in their heads. That is, until the spec wound up in the hands of Clint Eastwood, who had the power to turn it into a film. You gotta love Eastwood.

Do we approve of his character’s racial slurs? No. Do we find it funny that a man would be so politically incorrect in social situations? Yes. But you also instinctively know that the movie’s not approving of his racism, either. You know as you watch the film that the story will be about breaking barriers. You know that the main character, Walt Kowalski, will come to accept his neighbors and even fight for them, which is inspiring. But through the act of making this unsympathetic racist the protagonist, we’re shown that there are more sides to him than his racism. We also find value in seeing how people react to his racism, how they refuse to cry over his insults, but stand up to him and prove their worth, much in the same way characters reacted to Archie Bunker on TV. And in a sense, the movie props you up, too, and straightens your back and encourages you to be stronger. Prove your worth. Don’t cower to racism. Break barriers.

I liked what Ebert
had to say about Walt’s character: “Walt is not so much a racist as a security guard, protecting his own security.”

Vicky Cristina Bad-Exposition

In light of the recent news that Woody Allen’s latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, received a WGA Screenplay Nomination, as well as the Golden Globe for best comedy, I’d like to get on a soapbox.

Let’s say you did a script review on
TriggerStreet or Zoetrope. In this review you pointed out a flaw in the script the size of Mount St. Helens. That is, the poor dumb writer used voice-over to explain EVERYTHING. Naturally, you point out that you gotta show, don’t tell. Weak writers use voice over as a crutch. You might even quote Mr. Robert McKee from his book, Story, in which he went so far as to say, “the trend toward using this telling narration throughout a film threatens the future of our art. More and more films by some of the finest directors from Hollywood and Europe indulge in this indolent practice.”

And of course, you get an e-mail from this poor dumb writer filled with polite hatred because you didn’t recognize his genius. He says, “Give me one example of a bad film with too much voice over.”


This was the cinematic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard. Woody Allen should be ashamed he resorted to such amateurish techniques to tell his story. Sitting through that film was excruciating. I was ready to walk out after 10 minutes. Consider this opening scene:


FS - Through the windshield as the taxi moves down a highway to the city. Camera tilts up on a road sign, which reads:


Vicky and Cristina decided to spend
the summer in Barcelona.

MCS - Vicky sitting in the rear passenger seat, looks out the window at the passing countryside.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Vicky was completing her master’s
in Catalan identity, which she had
become interested in through her
great affection for the
architecture of Gaudí.

MCS - Cristina sits in the rear driver’s seat.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Cristina, who spent the last six
months writing, directing and
acting in a twelve-minute film,
which she then hated, had just
broken up with yet another
boyfriend, and longed for a change
of scenery.

She looks down thoughtfully.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Everything fell into place when a
distant relative of Vicky’s family,
who lived in Barcelona, offered to
put both girls up for July and

MCS - VICKY looks out the window at the countryside.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
The two best friends had been

A SPLIT SCREEN slides in and shows Cristina sitting on the other side of the taxi.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
...since college and shared the
same tastes and opinions on most
matters. Yet, when it came to the
subject of love, it would be hard
to find two more dissimilar

Vicky takes her cell phone out of her purse and dials a number.

NARRATOR (V.O.) (cont’d)
Vicky had no tolerance for pain and
no lust for combat. She was
grounded and realistic. Her
requirements in a man were
seriousness and stability.

(into cell phone)


DOUG, Vicky’s businessman fiancée, lies under the covers of his bed and talks into a cordless phone.

She had become engaged to Doug
because he was decent and

(into telephone)
--woke me up.


Vicky talks into her cell phone.

...and understood the beauty of

(into cell phone)
Oh, well, I’m sorry, I know I woke
you. Yeah, I’m -- I miss you, too.

Cristina, tugging at the ends of her hair, looks down wistfully.

Cristina, on the other hand,
expected something very different
out of love. She had reluctantly
accepted suffering as an inevitable
component of deep passion, and was
resigned to putting her feelings at
risk. If you asked her what it was
she was gambling her emotions on to
win, she would not have been able
to say. And that was exactly what
Vicky valued above all else.

(The screenplay is available

Following all this exposition via voice over narration, we’re given a dinner scene at the house in Barcelona where they’re staying with the owners. In this scene, much of this same information is repeated in the dialogue - the fact that Cristina isn’t working, made a 12-minute film she hated, and differs wildly from Vicky with respect to love.

I wanted to scream.

Later in the film, the narrator explains things that, had we been given a chance, could’ve easily figured out for ourselves. The voice over was also a crutch for lazy transitions, an excuse to not write dialogue, and most annoyingly, to explain to us exactly what we are seeing.


I must say, I agreed with the always perceptive critic, James Berardinelli, when he
wrote in his review, “Can a voiceover narrative ruin a movie? Probably not, but it can undermine one, and that's what happens here. Allen commits the cardinal sin of constantly break into his story with a barrage of verbal diarrhea uttered by Christopher Evan Welch, who really doesn't have the voice for this kind of thing. There's nothing ironic or witty or insightful about these disembodied observations. Half the time, they're stating the obvious. The rest of the time, Allen is using them as a crutch to move things along. One of the most basic rules of filmmaking is ‘show, don't tell.’ Employing (and overusing) a narrator allows Allen to re-write the rule as ‘tell, don't show.’ This is how plots start to feel contrived and artificial and how characters never quite gel.”

Exactly. Of course, this begs the question, are there films with good voice overs? Generally speaking, I am opposed to voice overs, as do most in the biz. They should be avoided if possible. You gotta show, don’t tell. I am ALL for that. Pass the clipboard and sign me up. Yet, there are still plenty of great films out there in which voice overs were used quite masterfully. Can you name a movie in which there was an effective use of voice overs? I offer you six:

  • A Christmas Story
  • Adaptation
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Goodfellas
  • Fight Club
  • Thank You For Smoking

I should also give a special nod to Kubrick’s Napoleon. If you’re going to write an epic bio of a huge (yet short) historical figure like Napoleon, and your film is going to encompass his entire life from his birth all the way up until his death, you’re going to need a narrator to move the plot along. There’s no getting around that. But Stanley did some interesting things with the narrator. At times, he’d make you see one thing while the voice over was telling you something different. For example, during the Italian campaign, we hear the Narrator tell us about all the glories and victories of Napoleon - while we watch French troops pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers. That’s clever use of the narrator, I think.

By the way, you might to check out Woody Allen’s
hilarious set diary, which is far more entertaining than anything you'll see in his film.

Friday, January 09, 2009

New Script Mag, baby!

The new issue of Script Magazine should be hitting the stands around the world and inside, you’ll find a stormy passion piece from me called “The Case AGAINST Characters Arcs.” Here’s a taste:

It’s funny to me that the biz is fill with individuals who purport themselves to be “open minded;” yet, when it comes to the art of storytelling, they’re the most close-minded formula freaks you’ll ever meet. And many believe that all protagonists in all stories must have arcs to their inner nature for better or worse. Are you kidding me? This myth has pervaded every area of Hollywood from gurus to screenwriting professors to pro consultants and just about everyone else, so that all new writers (and many working pros) encounter a thought police on this subject the likes of which we haven’t seen since the pre-wall days of East Germany. Who let this false gospel into our church? Friends, Script readers, fellow writers, and anyone else out there, hear my words and hear them well – this myth about arcs does not hold up against the record of cinema history. A story is not of a lower quality simply because a protagonist doesn’t “change,” but rather, this principle about arcs has been wrong since the beginning.

Hehehe… I love controversy! It’s actually a revision of an old article that went through its baptism of fire here and on TriggerStreet. I now feel pretty confident about this piece as a whole. Many thanks to everyone who argued and nitpicked every detail!

A few other goodies:

Win, Place & Showbiz: Handicapping the Writing Awards for 2008
by Bob Verini with additional reporting by Ray Morton
It’s an awards-season tradition: Bob Verini talks to the writers in contention for Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplay nominations. This year’s field is one of the most diverse in recent memory -- as far-reaching as Australia, as quiet as a revolution, as big-budget as a government bailout, as cute as post-apocalyptic robot love. Check out the odds on this year’s contenders.

Script to Screen: The Wrestler
by David S. Cohen
Former Onion editor Robert Siegel fought his instincts when stepping into the screenwriting fray. After a few comedy misfires, Siegel decided to go with his tastes -- Easy Rider/Raging Bull-type tales -- and found his voice. Now, he skips the laughs for the tragic character study The Wrestler.

Writers on Writing: Slumdog Millionaire
by Simon Beaufoy
Heretofore known best for his full-frontal comedy The Full Monty and last year’s comedy of manners Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Oscar®-nominee Simon Beaufoy headed for the slums of Mumbai to find out what he didn’t know. Hereafter known best for his affecting adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s Q & A, Beaufoy reflects on what he learned.

Interview: Peter Morgan on Frost/Nixon
by Ray Morton
At the end of an American president’s reign, Peter Morgan examines the after-effects of the abuse of power on a nation, personified in the 1977 David Frost-Richard Nixon battle of wits.

Film School Confidential
by Mike Notzon
To be or not to be ... a film school enrollee, that is. Are screenwriters served in attending formal programs, and if so, how? AFI grads Jonathan Levine and Brad Ingelsby make their cases.

New Media: Videogame Writers Sound Off
by Robert Gustafson & Alec McNayr
Halo 3 outgrossed Spider-Man 3 in 2007, harkening a shift in the balance of entertainment-industry power. Learn how the growing videogame medium is spawning opportunities for screenwriters.

Independents: Investing in Screenplays
by William Martell
As the spec market continues to contract and the studios scale back, William Martell dissects the nine elements that make your screenplay a great investment for a producer.

Good Examples: Best of the Best
by Ray Morton
Does anything tie the canon of Best Screenplay winners together? Ray Morton takes a closer look at nine classic films and points to the elements that make them the best of the best.

Hall of Fame Honoree: Stephen J. Cannell
by Ray Morton
A prolific career in television, fierce determination, and an unwavering work ethic: all three are characteristics possessed by 2008’s Final Draft, Inc. Hall of Fame Honoree.

Do you know what I’ve noticed? Ray Morton writes a lot of articles. I admit, I love the peeps at Script Mag. In any case,
check it out.


WGA Screenplay Noms

You guys have probably heard that the WGA Script Noms were released, and as if you needed yet another reason to know that “Nobody knows anything,” as William Goldman said, just take a look at that list. Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Burn After Reading? These are the best original scripts of 2008? Are you kidding me?

The list below includes links to the scripts available for download.

Burn After Reading, written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Milk, written by Dustin Lance Black
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, written by Woody Allen
The Visitor, written by Tom McCarthy
The Wrestler, written by Robert Siegel

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Screenplay by Eric Roth; Screen Story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord; Based on the Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Dark Knight, Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; Story by Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer; Based on Characters Appearing in Comic Books Published by DC Comics; Batman Created by Bob Kane
Doubt, Screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, Based on his Play
Frost/Nixon, Screenplay by Peter Morgan, Based on his Play
Slumdog Millionaire, Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, Based on the Novel "Q and A" by Vikas Swarup

It should also be noted, as Variety did, “Among the omissions from the WGA kudos are a handful of pics with traction in other awards-season contests, including Revolutionary Road, Rachel Getting Married, The Reader, Gran Torino and Happy Go Lucky. Animated pics such as Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda are ineligible for WGA laurels because they were not penned under WGA contracts.”

Will blog about all these scripts in the near future.


Hey guys,

Ya know, I get propositioned more than a hooker in Vegas, but I thought this Cowrite idea sounded rather clever. It's a contest in which the Benderspink Production Company provides the movie premise and you submit the first ten pages of a script.

The latest premise is "Determined to be a high-level Jason Bourne type operative, an awkward teenager enlists the help of a mysterious, supposed ex-CIA agent in his hometown and finds himself entangled in a dangerous plot that is way over his head."

Below is the e-mail I received from Todd, the head honcho.

BTW - Andrea Berloff is hot.

God, I love writers...



Dear Mystery Man,

I wanted to share with you and your readers a truly innovative screenwriting contest I have launched in association with management/production company Benderspink (A History of Violence, The Butterfly Effect, Just Friends) called Cowrite ( The contest provides a unique opportunity to those who have always thought they could write a screenplay to play an essential role in a potential Hollywood blockbuster.

A movie premise has been posted on the Cowrite website and writers now have the opportunity to submit their version of the first ten pages of the story. The best opening ten pages ($10 per 10 page entry), selected by the Cowrite judges, will be posted on the website and the story will build from there.

Every other week, the best ten-page script submission will be added to the developing story until the script is finished and ready to be sold. There will be eleven winners over the six month contest. For their ten-page contribution, each winning entrant will receive money and prizes totaling $3000, a pitch meeting with Benderspink and a chance to win the grand prize of a paid rewrite of the script. Winners will also share in any potential script sale proceeds.

Another exciting aspect of the Cowrite website is the "Pro's Take" section where professional screenwriters and industry professionals will offer comments and suggestions on the developing story as well as insight into how to get started in Hollywood. This mentoring program will serve as an invaluable tool for aspiring screenwriters and help guide the story along. Guest mentors will include screenwriters Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center), Shintaro Shimosawa (The Echo) and Josh Schaer (TV's Jericho).

This is believed to be the first screenwriting competition where the end goal is to try to sell a collaborative screenplay. In true Web 2.0 fashion, Cowrite utilizes social networking and the "wisdom of the crowd" to create a community-sourced product. Cowrite believes this method of art creation will become a widely accepted, and, in fact, sought out way of finding new talent while producing blueprints for major motion pictures. After all, what better market research tool for studios trying to figure out what audiences want to see at the theaters than letting the audiences provide the content?

Cowrite has partnered with The LA Film Festival and software companies Final Draft and Jungle Software, all of which will supply prizes to each of the eleven winners.

Please check out our website at and let your readers know about this exciting new community-sourced project. If you have any questions about Cowrite LLC, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Thank you for your consideration.

Todd Soffian

President & Executive ProducerCowrite

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Script Review – Hitch’s “Short Night”

Let’s go back in time. Imagine with me that you’ve been given the chance to work with Alfred Hitchcock, cinema’s great master of suspense. The job? Help Hitch write the screenplay for his FINAL film, what would be the last big hurrah in his career. Fascinating prospect, isn’t it? This idea captivated me more in 2008 than any other.

The first question you have to ask yourself is “are you qualified yet?” Do you feel capable of delivering a story for cinema’s beloved auteur that can stand next to his classics like Rear Window, Vertigo, or Psycho? Can you deliver dialogue that’s on a par with
John Michael Hayes? Are you schooled enough yet in the craft of screenwriting (such as structure, story, subtext, exposition, character depth, & visual storytelling)? Do you know enough about Hitchcock’s core principles of pure cinema and the art of suspense to rise to the occasion?

I suspect many would say, “Yes, I’m qualified,” but few truly are.

I thought I’d first do a little New Year’s house cleaning and finish up my series on the
Unproduced Scripts of Alfred Hitchcock. I had written so much about The Short Night in so many other articles, I forgot to actually write the long-promised script review, which a few readers have pointed out. I’ll follow-up this review with one more on Mary Rose, the film Hitch wanted to make more than any other.

They were so close to making this film that they had a poster designed (seen at the top of the article) by illustrator Jussi S. Karjalainen. Oooooo… Sean Connery and
Liv Ullmann? Really? I love it! Man, I’m SO there! Regrettably, due to Hitch’s failing health, they quietly canceled what would have been his final project in 1979. He died a year later. But if only Hitch and his screenwriter, David Freeman, had worked faster... If only Freeman found a way around Hitch’s leisurely pace and heavy drinking… Freeman recounted his experience working with Hitch in his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, where you can also read the screenplay for The Short Night.

The film was to be an adaptation of a book called
The Short Night by Ronald Kirkbride. It’s a very simple setup for a film. A British double agent (working for the communists) by the name of Gavin Brand escapes from prison. An American civilian, Joe Bailey, is persuaded (unofficially, of course) by the CIA to assassinate bad boy Gavin because Gavin had murdered his brother years ago. Joe naturally agrees. They know that Gavin will be meeting up with his wife and two sons to take them back to Russia. Find the wife and sons, and you’ll eventually find Gavin. And Joe does, indeed, find his wife, by the name of Carla Brand, on an island in Savonlinna, Finland. And while they wait for Gavin to arrive, they fall in love…

The pic below is from an article about
Hitch’s tour of Helsinki and Savonlinna in August, 1968, as he scouted locations for the film.

I’d like to break this review down into a pair of threes. There were three scenes I loved, and three elements that I felt needed retooling.

First, the 3 scenes I loved.


I love the opening sequence! (This section may sound familiar to some, as this was also quoted in my
Screenwriting State of Emergency article, but I’d like to include it here as well.) This is the prison break of Gavin Brand, as described by Freeman in his Last Days book:

A man sits in a car holding a bouquet of chrysanthemums. It’s evening, getting dark and raining. The car is a Humber Hawk and it’s parked on a cobblestone service road, next to a high brick wall. The man with the mums is listening to a voice we can’t quite make out. It could be the car radio, but his ear is cocked slightly toward the flowers.

The camera moves toward the windshield, descending slightly as it dollies forward peering into the car, about to show us what the man is doing with those mums. But when the camera arrives at the car, it surprises us, and further piques our interest, by panning off the windshield, over the wet cobblestone road, toward the brick wall. As the camera climbs the rough red bricks, going steadily higher, inducing dizziness in the viewer, the voice we’ve been hearing becomes clearer, as if the camera were hunting it. It’s an angry voice, an upper-class Oxbridge accent. “I’m here… hurry on now… can you hear? I said, I’m here.” When the camera is at the top, and before its descent, we get a glimpse of the surroundings on both sides of the wall. But instead of clarifying, it only serves to tease us more. In our one glance, from this height, we can see that inside the wall is a prison. There’s a tower, a few searchlights, and rude-looking cell blocks. On the outside, beyond the service road, we glimpse another large institution and a sign that says “Hammersmith Hospital.” But before we know what to make of that, the camera, our guide, moves down the wall toward the voice.

Inside, a tall, imperious man, dressed in prison garb, is huddled against a wall avoiding the lights and speaking urgently into a primitive walkie-talkie. “I’m here, damn it. I’m here. Now move.” The camera cuts to the outside (the very first cut in the scene) to the interior of the car. The driver speaks soothingly into his flowers. “That’s right then, I’m here. You’ll be fine… stay calm.” He starts to get out of the car, but his eyes register surprise and he stops talking. Across the service road, another car has parked and its headlights have gone off. There’s a young couple in the front, and they’re embracing feverishly. The man in the Humber Hawk mutters “Damn…” into his flowers and the voice from the other side, desperate now, says, “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“It’s bloody lovers’ lane.” He silences his flowers and then flashes his headlights at the second car, leering at the couple. They pull apart quickly, frightened by the light. The woman averts her eyes and her thwarted lover scowls and drives away. The mums are turned on again and a torrent of abuse comes from inside the prison. “Where the bloody hell are you..? You’ve bollixed it. You bloody Irish ass. I’m not going back. I’m not. I’m not going back.”

There’s more to this sequence. Man gets out of the car, turns off the flower-mic-thingee, and gets out a rope ladder. Headlights illuminate his boot as an old car approaches him. Inside’s an elderly couple. The woman leans across her driver husband and asks for directions. He answers. She can’t hear him. He repeats himself. Then there’s a question about where to park. Inside the prison, a movie’s about to finish and guards and prisoners will be entering the compound any minute. The prisoner’s getting frantic, yelling for the ladder. Outside, the elderly woman notices the flowers and wants details. Where did he buy them? Then she talks about her daughter-in-law whose liver is shot to hell. Inside, the prisoner is practically screaming for the ladder. There’s movement. They’re about to come out. Outside, not only is the couple still talking, but the man notices that there’s also a shift change at the hospital next door and more people are coming out into the street. Finally, the couple leaves. Rope ladder is thrown. The prisoner hurries over the wall just barely making it before getting caught but falls as he comes down and severely hurts himself.


Of this opening, Freeman said:

It could only be Hitchcock. Daring, outrageous, and complicated. Several things are happening at once, each component of the scene both clear and mysterious. It’s what Hitchcock liked to call “pure cinema.” By that, he meant a telling of a story in a way that has no effective equivalent in written narrative. It’s an emphasis on the visual, rather than the verbal. In the scene just described, the camera is doing one thing – traveling toward the mysterious mums; then before we can know what the flowers are, and who that fellow in the car is, the camera moves toward and then up and over the prison wall toward the angry voice. Now the soundtrack contains two unexplained voices, one desperate, the other soothing, while at the same time, the exact location of the activity is teasingly unclear. There are cars, a prison, a hospital, searchlights, and a rainy night that makes it even harder to know what we are being drawn toward. That all these things can happen simultaneously, and before we’re more than 45 seconds into the picture, is unique to the medium. Pure cinema.

How many new writers today would think to include an old couple asking a million questions in order to send the tension to excruciating heights? I LOVE the escalating tension! I love the way they slowly revealed important details non-verbally to the audience. I especially love the camera work, and yes, something like that CAN be written in a spec without using camera angles, without mentioning the camera, or writing (God forbid) “we see.” Just think about it. It’s not difficult.

A few interesting details. The script called out the location to be at Wormwood Scrubs Prison specifically, which is actually situated next to Hammersmith Hospital. In the aerial shot below, the prison is on the left, the hospital on the right, and the red circle highlights the street where the Humber Hawk would’ve been located.

Not only that, the opening sequence is based on a real prison escape by a real British double agent working for the commies named
George Blake. He actually climbed over that wall from the yard with a rope ladder (while other prisoners were inside watching a movie). They never caught him. Consider how big that wall really is:

Another interesting detail to note is the choice of car, the Humber Hawk. Freeman wrote, Most scripts don’t specify such detail. Hitch was quite certain what he wanted. I had to ask Universal’s research library to get me a picture of one. Humber Hawks turn out to be cute enough, but I still didn’t see why he wanted that specific car. His answer, which illustrated a Hitchcock working maxim: “It’s a timeless-looking sedan, don’t you see. A little out of date, but still roughly contemporary. Bear in mind it’s the first thing we see. American’s won’t recognize it at all, it will be foreign to them. Mustn’t let them (the audience) get too comfortable right at the start.”

Hehehe… That’s hilarious.


Definitely a favorite. Early in the Second Act, Joe Bailey figures out that a green and white parcel is being mailed to Carla Brand, which will be picked up at a specific post office in Helsinki. He goes there and waits for Carla to show up. I’m going to share the sequence as it’s written. Newbies should know that a Hitchcock screenplay is more like a shooting script than a spec, which is what we write. Hitch is essentially writing for himself, which will include a lot of technical details. The format is old school 1970’s shooting script style. Specs today should not include camera angles, as we’ll read in this sequence, although these same shots can be just as easily implied through
Secondary Headings, which is also used throughout this sequence.

It’s so much fun! You just know when you read all of those details about the locations that they were born out of Hitch’s tour of Helsinki and Savonlinna that I mentioned earlier when he scouted locations. This is pure cinema. It's a sequence that feels Hitchcockian

And it begins in Helsinki.


…Joe continues to watch the line, listening to the Clerk and the Customers converse – all of course in Finnish. The name “Mihkelsson” floats by, and Joe looks up suddenly to see a middle-aged woman (HILDA) accepting and signing for the green-and-white parcel. The woman is definitely not Mrs. Brand. She’s Finnish, a little masculine, with short gray hair. She tucks the parcel – beaten up now, with canceled stamps and torn corners – under the arm and starts past Joe, toward the exit.

She leaves the post office, turns to her right and disappears from view.


Joe starts toward camera. He stands in the doorway and looks in the direction the woman took.


He sees her moving away with the package under her arm.


Looking off, he quickly starts forward and out of shot.


Camera follows her as she walks. The screen is practically filled with the package under her arm.


The market is filled with noontime activity. Hilda threads her way through the crowd.




As Hilda stops for a moment at a produce stand. The package dominates the screen, but we can see Hilda buying tomatoes and grapes. When the package moves on, it’s two bags of produce.


Watching. Hanging back, but following.


As Hilda walks idly through the marketplace. Her hand plunges into one of the produce bags and we see a ripe tomato removed. Then, after it’s out of view for a moment, tomato juice and a few seeds drip down and spatter across the parcel.


She stops near the outdoor theater on the esplanade of the marketplace.

A group of Folk Dancers are performing. We see just their legs and the bottoms of their costumes.


Nearby. Watching.


In front of the state. As Hilda watches the dancers, she puts the parcel and the produce down for a moment to applaud.


In the background, also applauding, keeping his eye on the package.


Flops down onto the ground. As Hilda gets up to leave, she takes only the produce, accidentally leaving the package.


Surprised. Unsure what to do as the parcel lies deserted.


Masculine hands pick it up and hurry out of the shot.


Worried. Watching.


An usher from the outdoor theatre hands Hilda the package. She’s surprised that she lost it, thanks him, and then moves on.


Relieved. He continues to follow her.


Hilda - with the package – boards a bus marked Savonlinna. She takes a seat by the window, and puts the parcel prominently on the luggage rack above her seat. It can be seen through the window.


He hurries across the plaza toward the bus depot.


The Driver stands next to his bus while Joe speaks to him. We can’t hear what they say, but the driver raises several fingers, then points to his watch, indicating the hour.



Close on the parcel in the luggage rack as the bus bounces along the road out of Helsinki into the countryside. Camera stays on the parcel, but we can hear the sounds of the passengers, of the motors, and other traffic noises.


Revealing the countryside through the bus windows, and in the rear of the bus, keeping his eye on the parcel, Joe. He has an overnight bag with him.


The bus comes to a stop and the parcel is removed from the rack. The passengers leave the bus.


A resort and fishing village a few hours out of Helsinki. The bus stops at the dock. Some of the passengers go into town and others go to the end of the pier to board a ferry that goes across the bay.

Hilda and the parcel head for the boat. Joe follows. Camera continues close on the parcel.


Hilda boards the boat and puts the package down next to her. The shot loosens to reveal the other passengers, including Joe.


As it bounces up and down with the ferry, moving along the shore line.


Shooting from the boat, as it docks at the first stop, a promontory in the bay, about a half mile from Savonlinna.

When the ferry is moored, a few passengers, including Hilda get off.

Joe follows Hilda and the little knot of disembarking passengers. Hilda detaches herself from the group and walks to the other side of the jetty.


She steps down off the jetty, and heads for the water, moving out of Joe’s sight.


A motor launch is waiting. It’s piloted by another Finnish woman (Olga) who is about Hilda’s age, but stouter and stronger, and a little more mannish. Olga’s irritated, apparently because she’s been waiting for a long time. She pulls Hilda into the launch. Joe hears the last of their conversation.

You waste time. You dawdle.

I was shopping. I got some grapes.

I don’t want grapes. Just hurry.

Olga starts the engine and the launch pulls away.


Watching it move out into the bay. He turns and hurries back across the dock.


Joe hurries toward it. The boatman is tying flies, to sell to the fishermen.

Joe fumbles through a “Finnish For Travelers” book.

Mista voin vuokrata moottori veneen?

The boat man laughs.

I could do more Englanti a little.

(points to a small motor boat)
How much? Real quick. For the day.

(starting to prepare the boat)
Sixty marks.

(flipping through the book)
How much in American?

About seven pounds, English.

Here’s twenty bucks.

The boatman pulls the startling cable, accepts the twenty-dollar bill and helps Joe into the boat.

As Joe heads out into the bay, the boatman stands on the dock examining the twenty-dollar bill.


Joe moves out into the open water in his rented boat.


Far ahead of him but still visible.


Trying to make the rented boat go faster.


As they go around a curve in the bay, momentarily out of sight.


Nervous, as he nears the curve.


Nothing. Open water.


Staring at the void.


Above is a pic of Savonlinna.


My third favorite moment is the sex scene, still very original even by today’s standards. I wrote about it in my two-part series for the Nov/Dec 2008 issue of Script Magazine on “Sex and Screenwriting.” The following paragraphs come from part two of that series, which is still available for free online
here. This is the final moment together of Joe Bailey and Carla Brand, which occurs right as Gavin returns.

Here’s Freeman again:
“The lovers are seated across the room from each other,” [Hitch] began in his deliberate tones. “Their robes open as they look at one another.” He stopped, savoring the scene, repeating that the robes were open. He was starting to sound suspiciously like a schoolboy with a copy of Penthouse. “Outside, on the bay, a tiny boat is approaching, coming over the horizon” (the scene takes place in a cabin on an island off of Finland). “The lovers know the husband is approaching. They can hear the sound of his boat’s motor, growing louder as it comes over the horizon. They stare at each other and begin to masturbate, each of them. The camera moves closer to their eyes. The sound of the motor grows louder as their eyes fill the screen.” He’s grinning now and actually stretching his legs, his cane has fallen away with the lovers’ robes. “Then, after orgasm, the man must take an ivory comb and comb her pubic hair.” Now he didn’t actually intend to put this in the film. It was a private vision, playful and from the heart, a true home movie.

I love that scene. I love the aching desire between those two characters combined with the fact that they can’t touch each other in those few moments they have together. Plus, you have the noise of the approaching boat’s motor that brings a sense of rising tension into the scene with the arrival of her evil husband and by extension, the moment where he must be executed. Fabulous! It’s different from all the usual sex scenes we see in films. It’s rooted in the story, and it capitalizes on the high emotions of the moment. Hitchcock many times thought about quitting the development of this film, but it was the passion of these characters that kept him going.

The only other detail to note about that sex scene is that the noise in the motor boat was only taking place in her mind. Think about that.

Okay, the 3 critical elements


I want to talk about the two principle characters: Joe Bailey and Carla Brand, beginning with Joe. There is a scene that takes place at 21, Hitch's favorite restaurant in New York City. Joe is called to a meeting with a man named Paul Zelfand who works for the CIA. Joe Bailey is just a civilian. On the one hand, the scene is interesting from a technical standpoint because as these two men talk in the restaurant about Gavin Brand’s prison escape and retribution, the background shows an empty restaurant getting ready for lunch and by the time the scene is over, the restaurant is full. On the other hand, the dialogue is weak. It’s a scene that Freeman admitted bothered Hitchcock throughout the project, and I can tell you exactly what’s wrong here. Zelfand has to convince Joe to go on this mission (unofficially sanctioned by the CIA) to kill the man who murdered his brother, and Joe consistently refuses. Thus, he’s under-motivated.

Consider this bit of dialogue:

Zelfand: Stop wasting time. You know you’re going to do it.
Joe: What makes you so sure?
Zelfand: I was at your brother’s funeral. I saw your face. If you get near him, you’ll do the job.
Joe: You’ll say anything won’t you.
Zelfand: If it’ll stop Gavin Brand.
Joe looks at the photos, tosses them on the table and rises to leave.
Joe: It’s not for me. No.

Joe should be chomping at the bit for the chance to kill this man. Maybe, for the sake of adding layers to the dialogue, he could be putting up a front so he can negotiate for money and lots of cool weapons. That, I can understand. Otherwise, Joe needs to be totally motivated to do this thing. Freeman shared his thoughts on the changes he would’ve tried to make had they continued, and to his credit, he said he would’ve changed the dialogue to something like:

Joe: What are you going to do about this?
Zelfand: Nothing.
Joe: Then I will.
Zelfand: We can’t have anything to do with it.

That’s still a bit on-the-nose and sketchy for me, but it’s better than what we had because Joe’s more motivated to go on the mission.

Another aspect that bothered me was this relationship between Joe and Carla after they meet in Savonlinna. For the sake of plot and expediency, they had to fall in love pretty damn quickly. But the way it plays out left me feeling unconvinced. Here’s dialogue from when these two characters first meet. Joe had broken the motor on his rented boat and had been towed to the island where Carla and the boys are staying and waiting for Gavin.

Joe: I guess I was expecting a fisherman or a fisherman’s wife… or a boat mechanic… I don’t know what I was expecting.
Carla: That’s the surprise, that I’m not a mechanic?
Joe: The surprise is that you’re so beautiful.
Carla: Is that why you’re staring at me?
Joe: No, no. I don’t mean to be. I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stop myself.
Carla: If my sons can’t fix your boat, they can tow you to the ferry. I don’t mean to be rude, but it isn’t a good time for visitors.
Joe: You’re very lovely.
Carla: Please stop looking at me like that. It makes me uncomfortable. It’s so intense. You make me feel… naked.
Joe: I apologize. But I have to say the prospect isn’t altogether –
Carla: I’m curious, do you always talk to strangers like this?

For one thing, I hate it when protags apologize repeatedly like this in dialogue, which is so prevalent in amateur scripts, although apologies can be funny like the use of “I’m sorry” in Wanted. But here, when a man is hitting on a woman, apologies do nothing constructive. That’s the weak talk of the average frustrated chump, not Sean Connery. You guys know that I’m a fan of
Doc Love, Style, and Mystery. None of this type of dialogue or these excessive repeated compliments about her looks, would raise a woman’s interest level, especially if a woman’s actually saying that he’s making her feel uncomfortable. Later, Joe keeps returning to the island against Carla’s explicit wishes to the point where today he’d be considered a stalker. If she had gotten a restraining order, I would’ve understood and probably sympathized. But do you know what would’ve solved all of these problems?

Humor. Simple humor.

He steps into this situation with non-direct humor and a little flirtation. No one would think twice about them falling love. And this is a good example of why Hitch needed a man like
John Michael Hayes to handle dialogue and characters. Because the humor was so essential. A little humor can bring about a turning point in the plot, as well as move a plot forward, in a short amount of time and without the audience ever doubting what's happening between the characters. And I say this, of course, with all due respect to David Freeman, a good writer.

The problem with Carla is that we never got a sense of what she wanted. She has Olga and Hilda telling her what to do because Gavin’s coming soon to take them to Russia. You have this American stalker named Joe Bailey convincing her they’re in love and all she does is flip emotionally - “yes, I do,” “no, I can’t.” That’s weak, because we don’t have any real bearing as to what SHE wants. She needed to be more assertive and independent about her own feelings. She’ll do what she damn well pleases, Olga and Hilda be dammed, and she gives hints to Joe before they have an affair that yes, she’s needs something else in life, but she can’t. Fleshing out her inner conflicts and giving her some
depth of character would’ve enriched the story.


They needed to go through the script with a fine tooth comb and iron out all the implied setups and payoffs. Very few screenwriting gurus talk about this but so much of screenwriting is the fine art of setups and payoffs. And you have to be careful about the implications of what you’re saying and doing early in your scripts because they imply certain payoffs later.

For example, when Gavin breaks out of prison, he’s put up in a nearby flat. They’re sitting around and looking at newspapers because Gavin’s made all the big headlines. A doctor arrives to set his arm and put it in a cast. The doctor uses the newspaper in order to create the cast for his arm. Cool. But nothing comes of it. It feels like a setup to a really great payoff that never happened. Just imagine Gavin somewhere trying to get through a checkpoint or something and he’s trying to conceal his identity but then… a piece of the cast falls off revealing his face from a headline. Imagine the suspense you could wring out of a scene like that. That’s a payoff to this kind of setup.

The doctor leaves. The two men in the room also leave to get a van they’ve arranged for Gavin who is now left alone with a woman - Rosemary. They talk. Gavin makes a move on her, which turns into rape, and in his rage over her rejection, he kills her. Then, he leaves before the men return. Well, this sets him up as a rapist threat, a volatile kind of guy, which has no payoff in the story. In fact, when he merely throws Carla into a sauna to die after learning about her affair with Joe, it felt like an inconsistency in his character because we already witnessed a sampling of his rage. We think that the death of Rosemary will play some part later in the story, but it doesn’t. Perhaps the two men will show up for vengeance over her death, but they don’t. I think it would’ve been better if he killed both the men and Rosemary only to establish how scary Gavin truly is.

In the scene between Joe and Zelfand, Joe mentions that there were 41 other men killed along with his brother and that surely there will be other men out to get even with Gavin. Why allow for such a line unless it plays out somehow in the narrative?

There was a big, strapping male Woodchopper on Carla’s island. He was established to be a threat, but he was quickly and easily killed. If you’re going to establish a character as a threat, he better be a threat. He better do some damage or cause a turning point in the plot.

Joe had a gun mailed to him by Zelfand, which never played a part in the story. He comes back to his room one night to find it missing, probably taken by the local cop, whom Joe curses. Remember what Anton Chekhov said? “If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.” If you’re wanting to have the gun taken away from Joe for the sake of raising tension, then you should take the gun away when Joe needs it most, like say, Gavin sends men to his hotel room to kill him. When Joe realizes men are there to kill him, he tries to get the gun, but – gone. Thus, RAISED TENSION.


The ending to Hitchcock’s final film is quite an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? What should it be? The ending in the script, which took place on a train, was nice, but I needed more. In fact, as a screenwriter, I would’ve devoted the majority of my time to ensure that we had the biggest, most exhilarating, suspenseful ending ever in Hitch’s career. Hell, I might’ve also included a scene with a bomb under a table as a hat-tip to the wisdom of the master filmmaker…