Great Scene: “Whale Rider”

April 20th, 2016 by

The 2003 movie Whale Rider is a wonderful story, aptly described in this IMDB plot summary:

A contemporary story of love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.

The girl in question is Paikea, performed magnificently by Keisha Castle-Hughes in a role for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.

In this scene, many threads come together. Pai has invited her grandfather (another great performance by Rawiri Paratene) as her special guest to a school concert, her way of reaching out to him after he has blamed her for much of what has gone wrong with the local community by virtue of Pai’s birth — as a girl, not a boy who could become a tribal leader — and by Pai’s meddling in the ways of training, again in his mind not her place because of her gender. And yet, Pai still loves her grandfather, the current leader of the village, and font of knowledge about the Maori traditions which Pai has soaked up.

The scene begins with an announcement by Pai’s teacher that the young girl won an award for the speech she is about to give. One layer of subtext is that her grandfather is absent, so part of Pai’s emotional state is influenced by her disappointment. But there is so much going on in this scene, it is a remarkable moment… and a stunning performance by such a young actor… with a dramatic cross-cut to the grandfather making a stunning discovery on the beach.

We need movies like Whale Rider, ones that take us into specific subcultures around the world to educate us about our differences… and remind us of our shared humanity.

[Originally posted May 20, 2014]

Great Scene: “Sunset Blvd.”

April 6th, 2016 by

It’s one of the most famous endings in Hollywood film history with one of the most famous last lines of dialogue as well: Sunset Blvd. (1950), co-written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder, their 17th and final collaboration, and directed by Wilder. Here is a plot summary from

In Hollywood of the 50’s, the obscure screenplay writer Joe Gillis is not able to sell his work to the studios, is full of debts and is thinking in returning to his hometown to work in an office. While trying to escape from his creditors, he has a flat tire and parks his car in a decadent mansion in Sunset Boulevard. He meets the owner and former silent-movie star Norma Desmond, who lives alone wit her butler and driver Max von Mayerling. Norma is demented and believes she will return to the cinema industry, and is protected and isolated from the world by Max, who was his director and husband in the past and still loves her. Norma proposes Joe to move to the mansion and help her in writing a screenplay for her comeback to the cinema, and the small-time writer becomes her lover and gigolo. When Joe falls in love for the young aspirant writer Betty Schaefer, Norma becomes jealous and completely insane and her madness leads to a tragic end.

In the final scene, Norma (Gloria Swanson) is coaxed down to be arrested by the illusion that she is filming a movie scene. Max, played by famed German director Erich von Stroheim, is perceived to be Cecille B. DeMille by the now deranged Norma. Here is the script:


          Max makes his way down the stairs through the crowd
          of newsmen to the newsreel cameras, which are being
          set up in the hall below.

                  Is everything set up, gentlemen?
                  Are the lights ready?

          From the stairway comes a murnur.  They look up.

          Norma has emerged from the bedroom and comes to the
          head of the stairs.  There are golden spangles in
          her hair and in her hand she carries a golden scarf.

          The police clear a path for her to descend.  Press
          cameras flash at her every step.

          Max stands at the cameras.

                  Is everything set up, gentlemen?

                  Just about.

          The portable lights flare up and illuminate the

                  Are the lights ready?

                            2ND CAMERA MAN
                  All set.

                  Quiet, everybody!  Lights!
                  Are you ready, Norma?

                      (From the top of the
                  What is the scene? Where am I?

                  This is the staircase of the palace.

                 Oh, yes, yes.  They're below,
                 waiting for the Princess ...
                 I'm ready.

                 All right.
                      (To cameramen)
                      (To Norma)

          Norma arranges the golden             GILLIS' VOICE
          scarf ebout her and proudy    So they were grinding
          starts to descend the stair-  after all, those cam-
          case.  The cameras grind.     eras.  Life, which can
          Everyone watches in awe.      be strangely merciful,
                                        had taken pity on Norma
                                        Desmond.  The dream she
                                        had clung to so des-
                                        perately had enfolded

          At the foot of the stairs Norma stops, moved.

                 I can't go on with the scene.
                 I'm too happy.  Do you mind,
                 Mr. DeMille, if I say a few words?
                 Thank you.  I just want to tell
                 you how happy I am to be back in
                 the studio making a picture again.
                 You don't know how much I've missed
                 all of you.  And I promise you
                 I'll never desert you again, because
                 after "Salome" we'll make another
                 picture, and another and another.
                 You see, this is my life.  It always
                 will be.  There's nothing else -
                 just us and the cameras and those
                 wonderful people out there in the
                 dark...  All right, Mr. DeMille,
                 I'm ready for my closeup.

          FADE OUT.

                         THE END

And now the movie version:

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia about the movie’s equally famous opening scene:

Originally opened and closed the story at the Los Angeles County Morgue. In a scene described by director Billy Wilder as one of the best he’d ever shot, the body of Joe Gillis is rolled into the Morgue to join three dozen other corpses, some of whom – in voice-over – tell Gillis how they died. Eventually Gillis tells his story, which takes us to a flashback of his affair with Norma Desmond. The movie was previewed with this opening, in Illinois, Long Island, New York, and Poughkeepsie, New York. Because all three audiences inappropriately found the morgue scene hilarious, the film’s release was delayed six months so that a new beginning could be shot in which police find Gillis’ corpse floating in Norma’s pool while Gillis’ voice narrates the events leading to his death. Distortion caused by water meant that this scene had to be filmed via a mirror placed on the bottom of the pool.

If you haven’t screened Sunset Blvd. recently or ever, do yourself a favor and watch it.

[Originally posted November 20, 2009]

Great Scene: “Witness”

March 30th, 2016 by

If I asked you to name the most memorable scene in Witness (1985), it would probably be this one: Where young Samuel witnesses a murder in a Philadelphia train station bathroom. It is an incident that unbeknownst to the story’s Protagonist John Book (Harrison Ford) will become his Call To Adventure. Here is the scene from the script:

               ANGLE IN MEN'S ROOM

               As Samuel enters.

               It's a long row of sinks, urinals, and stalls... Samuel stops 
               before one of the urinals – a long, trough-like affair with 
               water drizzling down the rear porcelain panel.

               It's set a little high for Samuel, and it is making GLUGGING 
               FLUSHING NOISES that are, at least, intimidating. Samuel 
               stares for a moment, then turns, looks toward the stalls, 
               stoops to see which are empty.

               HIS POV – TOILETS

               Beneath the row of doors we can see no feet visible. Samuel 
               is alone in the restroom.

               BACK TO SCENE

               As Samuel proceeds along the row of door, finally selects a 
               stall near the end. He enters. As he does so, a heavily 
               bearded youth in a dirty sweatshirt enters. With some urgency, 
               he removes small notebook from his pocket and places it behind 
               a paper towel dispenser. Suddenly he glances up.

               Two other men have entered the men's room; one is a large 
               BLACK MAN in a three-piece suit under an expensive, overcoat. 
               His PARTNER is a Caucasian in designer jeans, half boots and 
               a short leather jacket.

               They advance on the young man with unmistakable menace.

               The young man whirls in terror; his two assailants lunge for 
               him... a savage, wordless struggle ensues in the close 
               confines of the lavatory.

               ANGLE IN SAMUEL'S STALL

               As the struggling men bounce off the door of his stall... he 
               can see their feet under the edge of the door.

               BACK TO FIGHT

               As the struggle builds to a climax... ends with the young 
               man stiffening with a grunt, his face draining of color.

               The two attackers step away, the blade in the black man's 
               hand bloodstained. His partner stares at what they've 
               accomplished with a stunned expression:


               The young man's hand comes away from his belly covered with 

               He stares at it, staggers toward the sinks. Finally his 
               bloodied hand reaches to smear at his face in the mirror. 
               Then he collapses to the floor.

               The black man motions for his partner to watch the door, 
               then quickly reaches up and removes the notebook from behind 
               the dispenser.

               ANGLE IN SAMUEL'S STALL

               As he edges open the stall door a crack. Over his shoulder 
               we can see the black man, his BACK TO US, rifling the 
               backpack. But beyond him, in the mirror on the far wall, we 
               catch sight of the black man's face.


               As he stares out the narrow crack. A beat, then he closes 
               the stall door.

               ANGLE IN STALL

               Samuel tries to make the latch work, but it's warped and 
               won't fall closed.

               BLACK MAN

               As he checks the notebook before placing it in his pocket. 
               His partner is covering the door, an automatic in his hand.

               The black man makes for the exit, then on second thought, 
               glances at the row of stalls.

               HIS POV – STALLS

               All quiet, but...

               BACK TO SCENE

               The black man whips out a .38 caliber revolver, and, starting 
               at the near end, starts pushing open the stall doors.

               ANGLE IN SAM'S STALL

               As the black man approaches, Samuel working desperately on 
               the latch. At the last minute he finally wedges it in.

               BLACK MAN

               He elbows Samuel's stall... the door won't open.

               ANGLE IN SAM'S STALL

               Fighting back panic, Samuel has retreated as far as he can.

               BLACK MAN

               As he gives the door a kick. It holds. He swears under his 

               ANGLE IN SAM'S STALL

               In desperation, Samuel does the only thing he can think of... 
               he slips under the partition into the neighboring stall the 
               black man just checked out. But he loses his hat in the 
               process. His hand snakes back INTO FRAME to snatch it just 
               as the black man gives the door a ferocious kick that 
               splinters the lock and nearly takes it off its hinges. He's 
               framed there, the big muzzle of the .38 revolver looking 
               down our throats.


               As his partner snaps from the doorway:

                         Will you come on, for Christ's sakes!

               A beat, then the black man holsters his weapon, turns to 
               follow the partner out.

               BACK TO SAMUEL

               As we hear the SOUND OF THE TWO MEN EXITING the lavatory. A 
               long beat, then Samuel opens the stall door a crack.

               HIS POW THROUGH DOOR

               Samuel's own face reflected in the blood-smeared mirror... 
               then PANNING DOWN to the still figure of the young man lying 
               in the crimson pool of his own blood on the floor.

Here is the scene from the movie:

This is one of those movies that lays out perfectly in terms of character archetypes:

Protagonist: John Book
Nemesis: Schaeffer, McFee, Fergie (the bad cops)
Attractor: Rachel Lapp
Mentor: Eli Lapp, the Amish community
Trickster: Samuel Lapp

Screenplay by Earl W. Wallace & William Kelley, story by William Kelley and Pamela Wallace & Earl W. Wallace.

[Originally posted December 19, 2008]

Great Scene: “Network”

March 23rd, 2016 by

The WGA has an annual honor called The Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award. And even though it’s for writers who work in TV, where Chayefsky ruled during its so-called “Golden Age,” there is no piece of writing that displays Chayefsky’s brilliance than this famous monologue in the movie Network (1976). In this scene, newscaster Howard Beale (Peter Finch) goes on a tirade about contemporary life that is as relevant today as it was over 30 years ago.

Nobody in the control room is paying too much attention
to Yamani, they are all watching the double bank of
black-and-white monitors which show HOWARD BEALE
entering the studio, drenched, hunched, staring gauntly
off into his own space, moving with single-minded
purpose across the studio floor past cameras and
and ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS, to his desk which is being
vacated for him by JACK SNOWDEN.  On the SHOW MONITOR,
the film clip of Yamani has come to an end.

	Ready 2.

	Take 2.

-- and, suddenly, the obsessed face of HOWARD BEALE,
gaunt, haggard, red-eyed with unworldly fervor, hair
streaked and plastered on his brow, manifestly mad,

	I don't have to tell you things
	are bad.  Everybody knows things
	are bad.  It's a depression.
	Everybody's out of work or scared
	of losing their job, the dollar
	buys a nickel's worth, banks are
	going bust, shopkeepers keep a
	gun under the counter, punks
	are running wild in the streets,
	and there's nobody anywhere who
	seems to know what to do, and
	there's no end to it.  We know
	the air's unfit to breathe and
	our food is unfit to eat, and
	we sit and watch our tee-vees
	while some local newscaster
	tells us today we had fifteen
	homicides and sixty-three
	violent crimes, as if that's
	the way it's supposed to be.
	We all know things are bad.
	Worse than bad.  They're crazy.
	It's like everything's going
	crazy.  So we don't go out any
	more.  We sit in the house, and
	slowly the world we live in
	gets smaller, and all we ask is
	please, at least leave us alone
	in our own living rooms.  Let me
	have my toaster and my tee-vee
	and my hair-dryer and my steel-
	belted radials, and I won't say
	anything, just leave us alone.
	Well, I'm not going to leave you
	alone.  I want you to get mad --

ANOTHER ANGLE showing the rapt attention of the PEOPLE
in the control room, especially of DIANA --

	I don't want you to riot.  I
	don't want you to protest.  I
	don't want you to write your
	congressmen.  Because I wouldn't
	know what to tell you to write.
	I don't know what to do about the
	depression and the inflation and
	the defense budget and the Russians
	and crime in the street.  All
	I know is first you got to get
	mad.  You've got to say:  "I'm
	mad as hell and I'm not going
	to take this any more.  I'm a
	human being, goddammit.  My life
	has value."  So I want you to
	get up now.  I want you to get
	out of your chairs and go to
	the window.  Right now.  I want
	you to go to the window, open
	it, and stick your head out
	and yell.  I want you to yell:
	"I'm mad as hell and I'm not
	going to take this any more!"

		(grabs HUNTER's
	How many stations does this
	go out live to?

	Sixty-seven.  I know it goes out
	to Atlanta and Louisville,
	I think --

	-- Get up from your chairs.
	Go to the window.  Open it.
	Stick your head out and yell
	and keep yelling --

But DIANA has already left the control room and is
scurrying down --


-- yanking doors open, looking for a phone, which
she finds in --


		(seizing the phone)
	Give me Stations Relations --
		(the call goes through)
	Herb, this is Diana Christenson,
	are you watching because I want
	you to call every affiliate
	carrying this live --
	I'll be right up --


DIANA bursts out of the just-arrived elevator and
strides down to where a clot of EXECUTIVES and OFFICE
PERSONNEL are blocking an open doorway.  DIANA pushes
through to --


HERB THACKERAY on the phone, staring up at HOWARD
BEALE on his wall monitor --

	-- First, you have to get mad.
	When you're mad enough --

Both THACKERAY'S SECRETARY's office and his own office
are filled with his STAFF.  The Assistant VP Station
Relations, a 32-year-old fellow named RAY PITOFSKY,
is at the SECRETARY's desk, also on the phone.  Another
ASSISTANT VP is standing behind him on the SECRETARY's
other phone --

		(shouting to THACKERAY)
	Whom are you talking to?

	WCGG, Atlanta --

	Are they yelling in Atlanta,

	-- we'll figure out what to do
	about the depression --

		(on phone)
	Are they yelling in Atlanta,


The GENERAL MANAGER of WCGG, Atlanta, a portly
58-year-old man, is standing by the open windows of his
office, staring out into the gathering dusk, holding
his phone.  The station is located in an Atlanta
suburb, but from far off across the foliage
surrounding the station, there can be heard a faint
RUMBLE.  On his office console, HOWARD BEALE is
saying --

	-- and the inflation and the oil
	crisis --

		(into phone)
	Herb, so help me, I think they're
	yelling --


		(at SECRETARY's desk,
		on the phone)
	They're yelling in Baton Rouge.

DIANA grabs the phone from him and listens to the
people of Baton Rouge yelling their anger in the
streets --

	-- Things have got to change.
	But you can't change them unless
	you're mad.  You have to get mad.
	Go to the window --

		(gives phone back to
		PITOFSKY; her eyes
		glow with excitement)
	The next time somebody asks you
	to explain what ratings are,
	you tell them:  that's ratings!
	Son of a bitch, we struck the
	mother lode!


MAX, MRS. SCHUMACHER, and their 17-year-old daughter,
CAROLINE, watching the Network News Show --

	-- Stick your head out and yell.
	I want you to yell:  "I'm mad
	as hell and I'm not going to
	take this any more!"

CAROLINE gets up from her chair and heads for the
living room window.

	Where are you going?

	I want to see if anybody's

	Right now. Get up. Go to
	your window --


CAROLINE opens the window and looks out on the
rain-swept streets of the upper East Side, the
bulking, anonymous apartment houses and the occasional
brownstones.  It is thunder dark; a distant clap of
THUNDER CRASHES somewhere off and LIGHTNING shatters
the dank darkness.  In the sudden HUSH following the
thunder, a thin voice down the block can be heard

	I'm mad as hell and I'm not
	going to take this any morel

	-- open your window --

MAX joins his daughter at the window.  RAIN sprays
against his face --

108.  MAX'S P.O.V.

He sees occasional windows open, and, just across
from his apartment house, a MAN opens the front door
of a brownstone --

	I'm mad as hell and I'm not
	going to take this any more!

OTHER SHOUTS are heard.  From his twenty-third floor
vantage point, MAX sees the erratic landscape of
Manhattan buildings for some blocks, and, silhouetted
HEADS in window after window, here, there, and then
seemingly everywhere, SHOUTING out into the slashing
black RAIN of the streets --

	I'm mad as hell and I'm not
	going to take this any morel

A terrifying enormous CLAP of natural THUNDER, followed
by a frantic brilliant FULGURATION of LIGHTNING; and now
the gathering CHORUS of scattered SHOUTS seems to be
coming from the whole, huddled, black horde of the
city's people, SCREAMING together in fury, an
indistinguishable tidal roar of human rage as formidable
as the natural THUNDER again ROARING, THUNDERING,
RUMBLING above.  It sounds like a Nuremberg rally, the
air thick and trembling with it --


standing with his DAUGHTER by the open terrace window-
doors, RAIN spraying against them, listening to the
stupefying ROARS and THUNDERING rising from all around
him.  He closes his eyes, sighs, there's nothing he
can do about it any more, it's out of his hands.

Notice how the dialogue builds from Howard seated behind the desk, almost as if someone confessing something. Then the pivot point, “Well, I’m not going to leave you alone,” where Howard turns from confessor to prophet letting loose with his clarion call: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Watch Finch who gives an incredible performance in this scene:

Now that is a great scene!

And doesn’t it seem like TV programmer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) would fit into today’s world filled with reality TV?

I’m sure someone will be tempted to comment about the length of Howard’s dialogue. For instance, his first side — setting aside the SD that breaks it up — is 59 lines long. I doubt there’s a screenwriting guru or script reader alive who would — in theory at least — acknowledge that writing a 59 line monologue is a good idea. However, two things. First, Chayefsky was a consummate wordsmith, especially his dialogue, so he could do anything he wanted to do. But the second thing is about the individuality of our stories. And if our story requires a character to go on a 59 line monologue, then we, as writers, have the right to let them do that. We also have the responsibility to make sure those 59 lines are damn good lines!

[Originally posted May 22, 2009]

Great Scene: “The Verdict”

March 9th, 2016 by

Courtroom dramas. A staple of Hollywood cinema for decades. From a string of great films nearly a half-century ago Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Inherit the Wind (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to more recent hits including Presumed Innocent (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), and Erin Brockovich (2000), movie-going audiences have shown a sustained interest in legal dramas.

One staple of courtroom dramas is the closing argument. I think it’s fair to say that most screenwriters would tend to go over the top and have their lead character ratchet up the drama through their dialogue. But in the fantastic movie The Verdict (1982), starring the late Paul Newman as alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin, screenwriter David Mamet resists that temptation to go bigger. Instead the power of Galvin’s words form from their simplicity and honesty.


               All looking slightly to their right.


               JUDGE SWEENEY Mr. Galvin...?

               ANGLE - GALVIN

               In front of the full jury box. Beat.

                         You know, so much of the time we're 
                         lost. We say, 'Please, God, tell us 
                         what is right. Tell us what's true.  
                         There is no justice. The rich win, 
                         the poor are powerless...' We become 
                         tired of hearing people lie. After a 
                         time we become dead. A little dead.  
                         We start thinking of ourselves as 
                         And we become victims.
                         And we become weak... and doubt 
                         ourselves, and doubt our 
                         institutions... and doubt our 
                         beliefs... we say for example, 'The 
                         law is a sham... there is no law...  
                         I was a fool for having believed 
                         there was.'
                         But today you are the law. You are 
                         the law... And not some book and not 
                         the lawyers, or the marble statues 
                         and the trappings of the court... 
                         all that they are is symbols.
                         Of our desire to be just...
                         All that they are, in effect, is a 
                         ...a fervent, and a frightened prayer.  
                         In my religion we say, 'Act as if 
                         you had faith, and faith will be 
                         given to you.'
                         If... If we would have faith in 
                         justice, we must only believe in 
                         And act with justice.
                         And I believe that there is justice 
                         in our hearts.
                         Thank you.

               He stands still a moment, then surveys the still courtroom.

Here is the scene from the movie:

Paul Newman takes these words and with his voice barely above a whisper, leaving plenty of room for silence, he drives home his point, one human to twelve other humans on the jury — making it a truly great scene.

[Originally November 7, 2008]

Great Scene: “Jaws”

March 2nd, 2016 by

Monologues are common with stage plays, but not so much with movies. Of course, “motion pictures” are primarily a visual medium — motion pictures — so dialogue, while important, is a secondary form of communication cinematically. However, great dialogue can transcend the adage, “show it, don’t say it.” And perhaps nothing better exemplifies that point than this great scene in the movie Jaws (1975), screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley.

           Brody is looking at a small white patch on Quint's other

                     What's that one, there?

                     Tattoo. Had it taken off.

                     Don't tell me -- 'Death Before
                     Dishonor.' 'Mother.' 'Semper Fi.'
                     Uhhh... 'Don't Tread on Me.' C'mon --

                     'U.S.S Indianapolis.' 1944.

                     What's that, a ship?

                     You were on the Indianapolis? In
                     '45? Jesus...

           Quint remembering.

           CLOSE ON QUINT

                     Yeah. The U.S.S. Indianapolis.
                     June 29th, 1945, three and a half
                     minutes past midnight, two torpedoes
                     from a Japanese submarine slammed
                     into our side. Two or three. We was
                     still under sealed orders after
                     deliverin' the bomb...the Hiroshima
                     bomb...we was goin' back across the
                     Pacific from Tinian to Leyte. Damn
                     near eleven hundred men went over
                     the side. The life boats was lashed
                     down so tight to make the bomb run
                     we couldn't cut a single one adrift.
                     Not one. And there was no rafts.
                     None. That vessel sank in twelve
                     minutes. Yes, that's all she took.
                     We didn't see the first shark till
                     we'd been in the water about an hour.
                     A thirteen-footer near enough. A
                     blue. You measure that by judgin'
                     the dorsal to the tail. What we didn't
                     know... of course the Captain knew...I
                     guess some officers knew... was the
                     bomb mission had been so secret, no
                     distress signals was sent. What the
                     men didn't know was that they wouldn't
                     even list us as overdue for a week.
                     Well, I didn't know that -- I wasn't
                     an officer -- just as well perhaps.
                     So some of us were dead already --
                     in the water -- just hangin' limp in
                     our lifejackets. And several already
                     bleedin'. And the three hundred or
                     so laying on the bottom of the ocean.
                     As the light went, the sharks came
                     crusin'. We formed tight groups --
                     somewhat like squares in an old battle --
                     You know what I mean -- so that when
                     one come close, the man nearest would
                     yell and shout and pound the water
                     and sometimes it worked and the fish
                     turned away, but other times that
                     shark would seem to look right at a
                     man -- right into his eyes -- and in
                     spite of all shoutin' and poundin'
                     you'd hear that terrible high
                     screamin' and the ocean would go
                     red, then churn up as they ripped
                     him.  Then we'd reform our little
                     squares. By the first dawn the sharks
                     had taken more than a hundred. Hard
                     for me to count but more than a
                     hundred. I don't know how many sharks.
                     Maybe a thousand. I do know they
                     averaged six men an hour. All kinds --
                     blues, makos, tigers. All kinds.
                     In the middle of the second day,
                     some of us started to go crazy from
                     the thirst. One fella cried out he
                     saw a river, another claimed he saw
                     a waterfall, some started to drink
                     the ocean and choked on it, and some
                     left our little groups -- our little
                     squares -- and swam off alone lookin'
                     for islands and the sharks always
                     took them right away. It was mainly
                     the young fellas that did that --
                     the older ones stayed where they
                     was. That second day -- my life jacket
                     rubbed me raw and that was more blood
                     in the water. Oh my. On Thursday
                     morning I bumped up against a friend
                     of mine -- Herbie Robinson from
                     Cleveland -- a bosun's mate -- it
                     seemed he was asleep but when I
                     reached over to waken him, he bobbed
                     in the water and I saw his body upend
                     because he'd been bitten in half
                     beneath the waist. Well Chief, so it
                     went on -- bombers high overhead but
                     nobody noticin' us. Yes -- suicides,
                     sharks, and all this goin' crazy and
                     dyin' of thirst. Noon the fifth day,
                     Mr. Hooper, a Lockheed Ventura swung
                     around and came in low. Yes. He did
                     that. Yes, that pilot saw us. And
                     early evenin', a big fat PBY come
                     down out of the sky and began the
                     pickup.  That was when I was most
                     frightened of all -- while I was
                     waitin' for my turn. Just two and a
                     half hours short of five days and
                     five nights when they got to me and
                     took me up. Eleven hundred of us
                     went into that ocean -- three hundred
                     and sixteen got out. Yeah. Nineteen
                     hundred and forty five. June the
                     Anyway, we delivered the bomb.

And here’s the scene:

Incredible delivery by Robert Shaw. Incredible scene.

[Originally posted September 19, 2008]

UPDATE: In comments, Dan Gagliasso wrote this:

Come on guys – it is very well known that John Milius wrote that scene over the phone as a favor for Steven Spielberg. Then Robert Shaw (who was a fine writer himself) cut it down some and made it his own. That credit is given in all of the books on the making of “Jaws” and Spielberg has been very public about giving Milius the credit, as well.

The Milius connection is well-known, indeed, as well as Shaw’s reworking of the speech. However that is only part of the story. Here is a direct quote from Spielberg himself taken from a 2011 Ain’t It Cool News interview:

I owe three people a lot for this speech. You’ve heard all this, but you’ve probably never heard it from me. There’s a lot of apocryphal reporting about who did what on Jaws and I’ve heard it for the last three decades, but the fact is the speech was conceived by Howard Sackler, who was an uncredited writer, didn’t want a credit and didn’t arbitrate for one, but he’s the guy that broke the back of the script before we ever got to Martha’s Vineyard to shoot the movie.

I hired later Carl Gottlieb to come onto the island, who was a friend of mine, to punch up the script, but Howard conceived of the Indianapolis speech. I had never heard of the Indianapolis before Howard, who wrote the script at the Bel Air Hotel and I was with him a couple times a week reading pages and discussing them.

Howard one day said, “Quint needs some motivation to show all of us what made him the way he is and I think it’s this Indianapolis incident.” I said, “Howard, what’s that?” And he explained the whole incident of the Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb being delivered and on its way back it was sunk by a submarine and sharks surrounded the helpless sailors who had been cast adrift and it was just a horrendous piece of World War II history. Howard didn’t write a long speech, he probably wrote about three-quarters of a page.

But then, when I showed the script to my friend John Milius, John said “Can I take a crack at this speech?” and John wrote a 10 page monologue, that was absolutely brilliant, but out-sized for the Jaws I was making! (laughs) But it was brilliant and then Robert Shaw took the speech and Robert did the cut down. Robert himself was a fine writer, who had written the play The Man in the Glass Booth. Robert took a crack at the speech and he brought it down to five pages. So, that was sort of the evolution just of that speech.

Per Spielberg, the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech has its roots in three ‘authors’: Sackler, Milius, and Shaw. Interesting backstory for what is in my view the high-water mark for exposition in movies.

Great Scene: “Michael Clayton”

February 24th, 2016 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today’s suggestion by Rahul Prasad: The 2007 movie Michael Clayton, written and directed by Tony Gilroy. IMDB plot summary:

A law firm brings in its “fixer” to remedy the situation after a lawyer has a breakdown while representing a chemical company that he knows is guilty in a multi-billion dollar class action suit.

It’s actually two scenes, but as continuous action, they play as one. In the first part, Clayton (George Clooney) confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) about information he has gathered related to the legal case and Crowder’s role in the death of Clayton’s longtime friend and associate Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson):

And then this:

This is a brilliant movie capped off by a powerful ending. The first part is almost all dialogue, the confrontation between Clayton and Crowder. The second part is almost zero dialogue, just a locked shot onto Clayton’s face as the cab drives and drives while credits roll. In Clayton’s face, we see the array of emotions roiling inside, perhaps most clearly a sense of sadness because even though he has succeeded in the eventual takedown of the chemical company, nothing will bring back his friend Edens… and nothing will allow Clayton the chance to relive his life while making different choices. He is a fixer who is broken.

As I watched the scene again, I was struck by two callbacks, one visual, one a line of dialogue. The visual is this:

Crowder: This would have to be a longer conversation and it would have to take place somewhere else.
Clayton: Where? My car?

Which, of course, brings to mind this moment:

The other is this:

Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.

Which recalls a line from Edens at the very end of this scene:

“I am Shiva, the God of death.”

In recalling Edens’ line to Crowder and Jefferies, Clayton provides an ironic button to the whole sordid affair, but also this: An attempt at redemption. To inflict the justice Edens wanted upon the immoral Powers That Be. But as we can see in the second part of scene, at most for Clayton it’s a pyrrhic victory.

How about you? What’s your take on the last scene from Michael Clayton?

To read all of the entries in the Great Scene archive, go here.

Thanks for the suggestion, Rahul! If you have an idea for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!

[Originally posted October 6, 2014]

Great Scene: “Night Shift”

February 17th, 2016 by

One of the classic 80’s comedies is Night Shift (1982), written by the prolific screenwriting team Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, and directed by Ron Howard. And if asked if you remember one scene from that movie, it’s most likely this one: The “prostitution” scene, where Bill Blazejowski (a tremendous comic performance by Michael Keaton) attempts to sell a group of hookers on this idea: Use the night shift at the city morgue to run a prostitution ring. Here’s the scene:

I don’t have the script, but here’s a transcript of the dialogue:

What are we really talking about here? What’s the essence of what we’re talking about? I’ll spell it out for you. PROSTITUTION! Hey, we can say. We’re big kids now. A lot of times, it really helps to understand a word if you break it down, so let’s do that now, shall we? Pros… it doesn’t mean anything, you can forget about that… Tit, I think we all know what that means, Tu, two tit and TION of course, from the Latin to shun… to say uh-uh, no thank you anyway I don’t want it, to push away… it doesn’t even belong in this word really, so let’s get rid of that.

I think writers appreciate the inspiration behind this scene even more than most because it finds the humor by breaking down — a word.

[Originally posted September 11, 2009]

Great Scene: “Manhunter”

February 10th, 2016 by

I think we’d all admit the first time Clarice Starling meets Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, that was a great scene:

But what about when we all were introduced to Dr. Lecter? That would be in the 1986 movie Manhunter. Written and directed by Michael Mann with a screenplay adapted from the novel “The Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, here is a plot summary from IMDb:

Will Graham [William Petersen] is a former FBI agent who recently retired to Florida with his wife Molly and their young son. Graham was a ‘profiler’; one who profiles criminal’s behavior and tries to put his mind into the minds of criminals to examine their thoughts while visiting crime scenes. Will is called out of his self-imposed retirement at the request of his former boss Jack Crawford [Dennis Farina] to help the FBI catch an elusive serial killer, known to the press as the ‘Tooth Fairy’, who randomly kills whole families in their houses during nights of the full moon and leaves bite marks on his victims. To try to search for clues to get into the mind of the killer, Will has occasional meetings with Dr. Hannibal Lecktor [Brian Cox], a charismatic but very dangerous imprisoned serial killer that Will captured years earlier which nearly drove him insane from the horrific encounter that nearly cost Will’s life. With some help and hindrance, Will races against the clock before the next full moon when the ‘Tooth Fairy’ will strike again. Elsewhere, a local photographer named Francis Dollarhyde [Tom Noonan], the killer that Will is looking for, struggles to stay undetected while seeing a hope of redemption when be begins a relationship with a blind woman who is not aware of his double life.

Here is the first meeting between Will and Lecktor:


               We hear three locks opening. The door opens. Graham enters.  
               An attendant behind Graham closes the door and we hear the 
               bolts lock again. As Graham is walking towards us, we WIDEN 
               and TRACK IN. It makes the b.g. disorienting as we get closer 
               to Graham's face. The CAMERA DROPS as Graham sits in a single 
               chair. We haven't yet seen what Graham looks at. Now:

               GRAHAM'S POV: BARRED CELL

               A 6x10 cage. In the center of the bars separating Graham 
               from the occupant is a three-foot-square perspex sheet. The 
               occupant can't get at someone sitting in front of him. In 
               the perspex square is a letter -- passing drawer. In the 
               cell -- laying on his bunk -- is DR. HANNIBAL LECKTOR. He 
               appears to be asleep. His back is to Graham. He has not 
               stirred. Then:

                         That's the same atrocious aftershave 
                         you wore in court three years ago.

                         I keep getting it for Christmas.

               CLOSE: LECKTOR'S HEAD

               turns to us. His small eyes drill into Graham's brain.  
               Lecktor's attitude is professionally psychiatric, as if Graham 
               is the patient.

                         Did you get my card?

                         I got it. Thank you.

               Graham's struggle will be to keep locked-down inside himself 
               all his emotional reactions.

                         And how is Officer Stuart? The one 
                         who was the first to see my basement.

                         Stuart is fine.

                         Emotional problems, I hear. He was a 
                         very promising young officer. Do you 
                         ever have any problems, Will?


                         Of course, you don't.
                         I'm glad you came. My callers are 
                         all professional. Clinical 
                         psychiatrists from cornfield colleges 
                         somewhere. Second-raters, the lot.

                         Dr. Bloom showed me your article on 
                         surgical addiction in the journal of 
                         Clinical Psychiatry.


                         Very interesting, even to a layman.

               Lecktor rolls around and examines the term "layman" in his 
               head. Then:

                         A layman..., layman. Interesting 
                         term. So many experts on government 
                         grants. And you say you're a 'layman?' 
                         But it was you who caught me, wasn't 
                         it, Will? Do you know how you did 

                         You've read the transcript. It's all 

                         No it's not. Do you know how you did 
                         it Will?

                         It's in the transcript. What does it 
                         matter now?

                         It doesn't matter to me, Will.

                         I want you to help me, Dr. Lecktor.

                         Yes, I thought so.

                         It's about Atlanta and Birmingham.


                         You read about it, I'm sure.

                         In the papers. I don't tear out the 
                         I wouldn't want them to think I was 
                         dwelling on anything morbid. You 
                         want to know how he's choosing them, 
                         don't you?

                         I thought you would have some ideas.

                         Why should I tell you?

                         There are things you don't have.  
                         Research materials... I could speak 
                         to the Chief of Staff...?

                         Chilton? Gruesome, isn't he? He 
                         fumbles at your head like a freshman 
                         pulling at a panty girdle.
                         He actually tries to give me a 
                         Thematic and Apperception test.  
                         Hah. Sat there waiting for MF-13 to 
                         come up. It's a card with a woman in 
                         bed and a man in the foreground.  I 
                         was supposed to avoid a sexual 
                         interpretation. I laughed in his 
                         Never mind, it's boring.

                         You'll get to see the file on this 
                         case. And there's another reason.

                         Pray tell.

                         I thought you might be curious to 
                         find our if you're smarter than the 
                         person I'm looking for.

                         Then by implication, you think that 
                         you are smarter than me, since you 
                         caught me.

                         No. I knew that I'm not smarter than 
                         you are.

                         Then how did you catch me, Will?

                         You had disadvantages.

                         What disadvantage?

                         You're insane.

                         You're very tan, Will.

               Graham does not answer.  If anything happens, there is a 
               tightening of the musculature repressing his reactions to 

                         Your hands are rough. They don't 
                         look like a cop's hands anymore.  
                         That shaving lotion is something a 
                         child would select. It has a ship on 
                         the bottle, doesn't it?

               Another silence. Lecktor's eyes look as if they're drilling 
               into Graham's head, trying to find out things. Trying to 
               find a way to hurt Graham. He's very threatening. Then 

                         Don't think you can persuade me with 
                         appeals to my intellectual vanity.

                         I don't think I'll persuade you.  
                         You'll do it or you won't. Dr. Bloom 
                         is working an it anyway, and he's 
                         the best...

                         Do you have the file with you




                         Let me have them, and I might consider 


                         Do you dream much, Will?

                         Good-bye, Dr. Lecktor.

                         You haven't threatened to take away 
                         my books yet.

               Graham gets up and starts to walk away.

                         Let me have the file. Then I'll tell 
                         you what I think.

               Graham stops at the door before he knocks for the attendant.  
               Then he folds the abridged file tightly into the sliding 
               tray. Lecktor pulls it through.


               sits in the chair. He wants a cigarette. He doesn't take 
               one. He waits. And he watches. What he sees:


               Toothbrush, mirror, sink, Sryrofoam cups, soft paper journals, 
               T-shirts, neatly stacked hospital pads, sneakers with no 
               shoelaces, the wall, seatless toilet bowl, etc, etc. All the 
               objects are brilliantly lit with sharp bluish light.  Their 
               edges are sharper and more defined than normal. The shadows 
               of the bars make hard-edged stripes. It is a high resolution, 
               highly brilliant set of images. It feels like a hyper-
               perception of reality, a super-realism perceived by the mind 
               of Graham. It is interrupted when:

                                     LECKTOR (O.S.)
                         There is a very shy boy, Will.


               snaps back to the present, looks at Lecktor.

                         What were the yards like?

                         Big backyards, fences, some hedges, 

                         Because, my dear Will, if this Pilgrim 
                         imagines he has a relationship with 
                         the full moon, he might go outside 
                         and look at it.  Have you seen blood 
                         in moonlight, Will? It appears quite 
                         black. If one were nude, it would be 
                         better to have outdoor privacy for 
                         this sort of thing.

                         That's interesting.

                         It's not 'interesting'. You thought 
                         of it before.

                         Yes. I'd considered it.

                         You came here to look at me, Will.  
                         To get the old scent again, didn't 

                         I want your opinion.

                         I don't have one right now.

                         When you do have one I'd like to 
                         hear it.

                         May I keep the file?

                         I haven't decided yet.

                         I'll study it, Will. When you get 
                         more files, I'd like to see them, 
                         too. You can call me. When I have to 
                         call my lawyer, they bring me a 
                         telephone. Would you like to give me 
                         your home number?



                         Do you know how you caught me, Will?

                         Goodbye, Dr. Lecktor. You can leave 
                         messages for me at the number on the 

               Graham bangs on the door. Locks are starting to be unlocked.  
               Graham can't wait to get out of here. He wants the locks to 
               get unlocked faster!

                         Do you know how you caught me?

               The door is now open. Graham fights down the impulse to run 
               through. As Graham -- controlled -- steps out, what he hears 

                                     LECKTOR (O.S.)
                         The reason you caught me, Will, is: 
                         We're just alike. You want the scent? 
                         Smell yourself.

               The DOOR SLAMS shut on Lecktor.

                                                                    CUT TO:

Here’s the scene from Manhunter:

It’s the same psychological games from Lecktor that we see in Lambs, despite the different spelling of his name.

I thought Manhunter was a really good movie. I also thought that Francis Dollarhyde was even more frightening than Buffalo Bill (but I’m basing that on my experience of reading the books as “The Red Dragon” totally freaked me out).

But the big question is which Lecktor / Lecter do you like better: Cox’s version or Hopkins?

[Originally posted June 11, 2010]

Great Scene: “Heat”

January 20th, 2016 by

October is Great Scene month at Go Into The Story whereby we put a spotlight on notable movie scenes, then analyze and discuss them. Their structure, themes, character dynamics. Why do they work? What are their narrative elements that elevate them to greatness? Let’s face it: In a fundamental way, screenwriting is scene-writing, so the more we learn about this aspect of the craft, the better.

Today’s suggestion by ryanleegilmore.

The 1995 movie Heat, written and directed by Michael Mann, is superior entertainment. Here’s an IMDB plot summary:

Hunters and their prey–Neil and his professional criminal crew hunt to score big money targets (banks, vaults, armored cars) and are, in turn, hunted by Lt. Vincent Hanna and his team of cops in the Robbery/Homicide police division. A botched job puts Hanna onto their trail while they regroup and try to put together one last big ‘retirement’ score. Neil and Vincent are similar in many ways, including their troubled personal lives. At a crucial moment in his life, Neil disobeys the dictum taught to him long ago by his criminal mentor–‘Never have anything in your life that you can’t walk out on in thirty seconds flat, if you spot the heat coming around the corner’–as he falls in love. Thus the stage is set for the suspenseful ending….

Hanna is played by Al Pacino. Robert DeNiro portrays Neil. In this great scene, the two meet for the one and only time in the movie – and as far as I know, it’s the only time they’ve ever shared the screen at the same time in their entire acting careers.

The dialogue drips with subtext, but what is perhaps most interesting is the journey the scene takes. They start off with a bit of cat-and-mouse, prodding and probing each other. Then they strip away the veneer and take a good honest look at each other – and realize they’re really quite similar in terms of their place in life. Then it feels like they’re truly trying to see if there’s a way out of a confrontation. But it ends up pretty much where it started – they know they’re going to be at each other down the road.

Here’s the scene:

Some background on the scene:

* In an interview with Al Pacino on the DVD Special Edition, Pacino revealed that for the scene in the restaurant between Hanna and McCauley, Robert De Niro felt that the scene should not be rehearsed so that the unfamiliarity between the two characters would seem more genuine. Michael Mann agreed, and shot the scene with no practice rehearsals.

* For the restaurant sequence where McCauley and Hanna finally meet, Michael Mann ran two cameras simultaneously in order to generate a greater level of fluidity between both rivals. Since there were no rehearsals for the scene, this approach afforded both men a more generous margin for improvisational experimentation.

* Although this is the second film on which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro have shared top billing, in The Godfather: Part II (1974), they didn’t have a single scene together. In this movie, they only have two scenes together, for a total of less than 10 minutes.

* Many viewers claim that Robert De Niro and Al Pacino never (or hardly ever) actually share screen time during the film, despite the hype surrounding the films release as showcasing their first screen appearance. In most Pan and Scan versions of the film, and TV broadcasts, it does appear that during the “diner scene” the two never actually share the screen, but viewing the film in correct letterbox format, as the director Michael Mann intended, clearly shows the two actors sitting at the table, though only in wide shots.

* The meeting between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino over coffee was shot at Kate Mantilini on Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills. The restaurant recently closed.

If you watch the movie version and compare it to the script, you’ll note that there is a middle section, presumably added by Michael Mann. And that dialogue exchange is this:

HANNA: You know I have this recurring dream. I’m sitting at this big banquet table and all the victims of all the murders I ever worked are sitting at this table and they’re staring at me with these black eyeballs because they got 8-ball hemorrhages from the head wounds. And there they are, these big balloon people, because I found them two weeks after they’ve been under the bed. The neighbors reported the smell. And there they are, all of ’em, just sitting there.
NEIL: Whadda they say?
HANNA: Nothing.
NEIL: No talk?
HANNA: No. Just… they don’t have anything to say. They just look at each other. They look at me. And that’s it, that’s the dream. (snaps fingers)
NEIL: I have one where I’m drowning. And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I’ll die in my sleep.
HANNA: You know what that’s about?
NEIL: Yeah. Havin’ enough time.
HANNA: Enough time? To do what you wanna do?
NEIL: That’s right.
HANNA: You doin’ it now?
NEIL: Nah, not yet.

And that segues into “You know we’re sitting here like a coupla of regular fellahs.” It’s interesting to conjecture: Why did Mann add these two ‘confessions,’ both men sharing a secret about their recurring dreams? I’ve got a couple of ideas, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say, so please feel free to weigh in with your comments. Just in general, why do you think this scene works? If anybody cares to do a structural analysis of the scene, breaking it down, that would be groovy.

If you’d like to read the scripted version of the scene, check out my Script To Screen post here.

To read the entire script, go here.

In any event, I think I’m not diving off the deep end to assert that this is a great scene.

Thanks for the suggestion, Ryan! If you have a suggestion for this Great Scene series, check out the responses people have made so far here. If you have a different scene in mind you think would be worthy of analysis, please post it there or in comments for this post. Thanks!

[Originally posted October 1, 2014]