Since I started this series of weekly posts, spotlighting good examples of scene description, much of the focus has been on action. But how to write about a moment where nothing much is happening visually (External World), but so much is going on emotionally (Internal World). There’s a great example of this from a movie I really liked Rachel Getting Married (2008) with a fine screenplay by Jenny Lumet (personally I thought it deserved a WGA nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and excellent direction by Jonathan Demme. Here’s a summary of the plot:
Kym is released from rehab for a few days so she can go home to attend her sister Rachel’s wedding. The home environment is always challenging for a recovering addict, no less so when the visit if only for a few days. While the sisters feel genuine affection for one another, there is tension in their relationship. Rachel feels that her father dotes on Kym far too much and Kym is upset to learn that Rachel has selected a friend to be her maid of honor. Their father is genuinely concerned about Kym’s well-being but doesn’t see the stress the relationship is causing. Both women also have to deal with their selfish mother who is clearly more concerned with her own well-being ahead of that of her children. Underlying the family’s dynamic is a tragedy that occurred many years previously and for which Kym is held by some to be responsible.
The tragedy is the death of Kym’s younger brother Ethan, just a child, killed in a car crash when Kym, while high, drove off a bridge. In this scene, set in the house of Rachel’s parents, Paul (Bill Irwin) and Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) Buchman, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) has just finished complaining to her father about the likelihood of Kym (Anne Hathaway) ruining Rachel’s impending wedding. Then a group of wedding guests bursts inside, led by Rachel’s fiance Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). For the record, Paul is famous for how masterfully he loads the dishwasher:
RACHEL Sometimes I don't want her. It's my fucking wedding, don't you get it? I want my table to be perfect. Paul kisses her on the forehead. PAUL Stop it. She's your sister. They look at each other. The screen door swings open as Emma, Carol, Sidney, Kieran, and Norman Sklear carry the lunch plates to the kitchen. Kym follows, carrying the salt shaker. PAUL Okay. Dishes? I'm going to load the dishwasher. SIDNEY Paul! Paul, listen. I've been thinking about it. I did some preliminary sketches, I'd love to show them to you... KIERAN (to Carol) He's not kidding. SIDNEY And I think if you move the salad bowls to the upper tier you can get about 10% more stuff in the dishwasher. CAROL Hee hee hee. Paul gives him a look. Sidney starts humming PAUL'S DISHWASHER THEME. PAUL Sidney, you're a nice young man. You make a lot of money and the world is your oyster. But you don't know shit about loading a dishwasher. SIDNEY Sir, with all due respect, the mantle has passed. Paul takes a moment to size Sidney up then spins on his heel to the dishwasher. TIME CUT-- Sidney has his sleeves up and starts to load. KYM What's the time limit? CAROL Two minutes. SIDNEY Are you comfortable with that, sir? I could spot you thirty seconds. PAUL You young people should all go fuck yourselves. KYM Dad! CAROL Ha! SIDNEY You see Paul, I think your problem lies in lid placement. Inverting the lids and stacking them in the upper level is really for amateurs. It's passe. PAUL Rachel, you're out of the will. SIDNEY Observe. With a flourish, Sidney presents a beautifully stacked dishwasher. Paul pats his shoulder somberly. PAUL Clean out this machine please, boy. So I can break out the whup-ass. Screaming all around. Kym jumps up and down with her arms on Rachel's shoulders. Rachel glances at her sister, laughing. SIDNEY/KIERAN (delightedly) He's breakin' out the whup ass! A SWEET MONTAGE. Paul is loading the dishwasher like a champ. Carol and Emma are smiling and giggling. Kieran has his eye on the clock. Sidney trash talks from the sidelines. SIDNEY You know one of the early signs of senile dementia is an obsessive need to organize. PAUL Rachel, go fetch me my dart gun. SIDNEY I find it touching but ultimately sad when the warriors of yesteryear are reluctant to lay down their plastic containers from Zabar's and retire gracefully PAUL Kieran, how's my time? KIERAN You have twenty-five seconds. PAUL I need more dishes. You amateur! SIDNEY What? No way! PAUL Somebody give me some dishes! Kym yanks open a cupboard and passes a handful of dishes to Paul. He begins to load them. CLOSE ON PAUL He has a bowl in his hands. We see the bowl is a plastic child's bowl with Engines and Cabooses all over it. Paul turns the bowl around in his hands like a steering wheel. It dawns on Kym that she's handed her father Ethan's bowl. She is stricken. Paul looks to Carol. He seems bewildered. The kitchen falls silent and Carol takes Ethan's bowl and places it in the sink, out of sigh. She leads Paul gently out of the kitchen. CLOSE ON KYM -- CLOSE ON RACHEL -- She turns and leaves the kitchen. Sidney follows her. Emma and Norman Sklear step out onto the porch. Kieran takes the Ethan bowl from the sink and puts it quietly back in the cupboard and shuts the door. Kym doesn't know what to do.
Check out the ‘room’ Lumet gives the characters and the moment with her scene description at the end of this scene. Simple sentences, but with power (“She is stricken”) and leaving much room for interpretation what a character can be feeling (“He seems bewildered”). And then that last paragraph: “Kieran takes the Ethan bowl from the sink and puts it quietly back in the cupboard and shuts the door. Kym doesn’t know what to do.”
By putting Ethan’s bowl back into the cupboard, Kieran tries to shut the Pandora’s box Kym has opened, but everything about the scene suggests that can’t happen – which looms over and under the final description: Kym doesn’t know what to do.
Powerful moment. But notice how it’s all set up with this description in the middle of the scene:
Kym jumps up and down with her arms on Rachel's shoulders. Rachel glances at her sister, laughing.
After Rachel’s concern about Kym ruining the wedding, this wonderful and human moment. Two sisters reveling as part of a family. Perhaps a turning point for the better, yes? Wrong! It turns out to be a turning point for the worse. So what Lumet does is (A) create a switch – this is not a happy scene, this is a painful moment – and (B) by elevating our expectations, the low we experience through the characters’ reactions at the scene’s end is that much lower.
This is a great example of how to write a powerful scene with emotions roiling all in, around, and through its ending, but not overwriting it, rather using restrained description to allow the moment to breathe.
Here is an interview with Anne Hathaway about her role as Kym in Rachel Getting Married.
Jenny Lumet will be joining fellow screenwriters Brian Koppelman, Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith, and myself at the upcoming Black List Screenwriters Lab in Las Vegas from September 30-October 5th.
[Originally posted February 11, 2010]