Great Scene: “Cast Away”

October 15th, 2014 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 movie is a suggestion by Jon: The 2000 movie Cast Away, written by William Broyles Jr. IMDB plot summary:

A FedEx executive must transform himself physically and emotionally to survive a crash landing on a deserted island.

Chuck (Tom Hanks) has just gotten done seeing Kelly (Helen Hunt) for the first time since his return to civilization. She gives him the keys to his car. They head outside into the rain.

Here is the dialogue in the scene after Chuck meets with Kelly:

We both had done the math. Kelly added it all up and… knew she had to let me go. I added it up, and knew that I had… lost her. ‘cos I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick, or get injured or something. The only choice I had, the only thing I could control was when, and how, and where it was going to happen. So… I made a rope and I went up to the summit, to hang myself. I had to test it, you know? Of course. You know me. And the weight of the log, snapped the limb of the tree, so I-I – , I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over nothing. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass… And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

Hollywood has had a long tradition of a type of ending: Give ‘em what they expect… then give ‘em what they want. The ending of Cast Away provides a double twist. The first scene above — between Chuck and Kelly — plays out, at least at first, in the traditional manner:

Give ‘em what they expect: Chuck will drive away and leave Kelly behind. In other words, Boy doesn’t get Girl.

Give ‘em what they want: Kelly races out in the rain to tell Chuck she loves him. Ah, so Boy does get Girl. They even sell this to the point of having her get into his car. She smiles. He smiles. This is going to be a Happy Ending. This is what the audience wants!

But then… no. She has to go home. So as Chuck drives Kelly back up the driveway toward her house, we’re back to Boy doesn’t get Girl. The first twist on the give ‘em what they expect, then give ‘em what they want pattern.

Then the second scene where Chuck delivers the monologue cited above, basically explaining how he processed finding then losing Kelly. That last line — “Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?” — is not only an acknowledgement of the wisdom he learned from his time on the island, it also sets the stage for the second twist. From IMDB:

He drives to Texas with the FedEx package decorated with wings in his Jeep. He attempts to deliver it but no one is there. He leaves it at the door with a note stating that the parcel saved his life. He drives south and at a four-way intersection and gets out of his car to look at a map. A friendly, pretty woman in an old pick-up truck stops and asks him if he is lost. He confesses he hasn’t made up his mind where he was going. She tells him where the four roads lead, and that north, the direction Chuck had just come from, leads to a whole lot of nothingness. She drives north and as she pulls away, Chuck is surprised to see the same pair of wings that were on the package on the tail gate of her truck. Chuck walks to the center of the intersection and looks in each direction for a few seconds. He then turns north and his gaze lingers in the direction the woman drove.

Look what the tide brings in: A pretty woman in an old pick-up truck who may be what Destiny has in store for Chuck. So maybe good ol’ Chuck is going to get the Girl after all… and the audience can at least imagine a Happy Ending, giving us what we want.

Takeaway: We can play around with conventions. Explore twists that provide a fresh take on what audiences expect. Better to have an emotionally resonant ending rather than something that comes off as too pat.

How about you? What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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

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!

Great Scene: “On the Waterfront”

October 14th, 2014 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: The 1954 movie On the Waterfront, screenplay by Budd Schulberg. IMDB plot summary:

An ex-prize fighter turned longshoreman struggles to stand up to his corrupt union bosses.

A worker Kayo (Pat Henning) has been purposefully killed on the orders of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) in a supposed dock accident. Father Barry (Karl Malden) stands over the dead body while Terry (Marlon Brando) and the other workers look on.

Some background:

* On the Waterfront (1954) is widely known to be an act of expiation on the part of Elia Kazan for naming names to HUAC during the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. What is less widely reported is that Kazan intended it as a direct attack at his former close friend Arthur Miller who had been openly critical of Kazan’s actions. Specifically, it was a direct response to Miller’s play The Crucible.

* Arthur Miller was approached by Elia Kazan to write the screenplay, and did so, but later pulled it when the FBI and studio bosses required him to make the gangsters Communists.

* The idea for the film began with an expose series written for The New York Sun by reporter Malcolm Johnson. The 24 articles won him a Pulitzer Prize and were reinforced by the 1948 murder of a New York dock hiring boss which woke America to the killings, graft and extortion that were endemic on the New York waterfront. Budd Schulberg was captivated by the subject matter, devoting years of his life to absorbing everything he could about the milieu. He became a regular fixture on the waterfront, hanging out in West Side Manhattan and Long Island bars, interviewing longshore-union leaders and getting to know the outspoken priests from St Xavier’s in Hell’s Kitchen.

The scene has obvious religious overtones: The victim a martyr; Johnny Friendly a Pontius Pilate type deciding who would live and who would die; Father Barry a lone prophet crying in the wilderness. But he speaks the truth and the workers know it. Although nothing changes immediately, the murder and Barry’s speech stick with Terry eventually causing him to act.

Two takeaways: First, if a scene calls for a monologue, consider making the character delivering a truth-teller. There is power in the truth and that can create a desire on the part of a script reader to embrace a long recitation. Second, notice how Father Barry’s speech is interrupted twice by items thrown at him, one a piece of fruit, one a can which hits him on the forehead drawing blood. The contrast between his words and those actions — that visual element — heightens the impact of the moment.

From a historical perspective, it’s interesting to parallel this story to High Noon, both attempts on the part of the filmmakers to interpret and justify their respective actions during the House on Un-American Activities Committee, both those who named names of supposed Communist sympathizers, such as Schulberg and Kazan, and those who refused and suffered as result including Carl Foreman, screenwriter of High Noon, who was blacklisted.

How about you? What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, James! 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!

Great Scene: “Schindler’s List”

October 13th, 2014 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 James Schramm: The 1993 movie Schindler’s List, screenplay by Steve Zaillian, novel by Thomas Keneally. IMDB plot summary:

In Poland during World War II, Oskar Schindler gradually becomes concerned for his Jewish workforce after witnessing their persecution by the Nazis.

Out for a ride on their horses, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) and his wife Emilie Schindler (Caroline Goodall) stop on a bluff, peering down at the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.

Some background:

* After the book’s author Thomas Keneally wrote a miniseries-length script, Kurt Luedtke was hired by Steven Spielberg to write the screenplay, but he gave up after four years’ work.

* At Steven Spielberg’s request, Aaron Sorkin did a “dialogue wash” on the excessively wordy script.

* The Krakow ghetto “liquidation” scene was only a page of action in the script, but Steven Spielberg turned it into 20 pages and 20 minutes of screen action “based on living witness testimony”. For example, the scene in which the young man escapes capture by German soldiers by telling them he was ordered to clear the luggage from the street was taken directly from a survivor’s story.

* The girl in the red dress was a real girl named Roma Ligocka. Unlike her film counterpart, she survived the war, and wrote a memoir titled “The Girl in the Red Coat: A Memoir”.

Great scenes often involve events that twist the plot in a significant and new direction. That is the case here with Schindler. Up to this point in the story, he had viewed indentured Jews merely as factory workers and a means for him to line his pockets with profits. That all changes because of this scene.

What is fascinating about the scene is how it manages to capture both the breadth of the unfolding horror almost exclusively from a distance, reflecting Schindler’s vantage point, and combined with the specificity of the atrocities, the latter driven home by the appearance of the Girl in the Red Coat.

Schindler spots her. Tracks her. Cannot keep his eyes off her. Imagine the scene without her. Would the impact on Schindler have been so powerful? My guess is it was the experience of watching this little girl where empathy about the fate of the Jews really settled into Schindler’s consciousness. The enormity of the violence he witnessed from the hilltop was almost too much to imagine. The fate of that little girl was something he could identify with: one human soul to another.

Of course from a narrative standpoint, this scene with the Girl in the Red Coat is a setup for a gut-wrenching payoff:

I would imagine that the image of the deceased child, clearly someone Schindler remembers (just look at his expression when he sees her body pass by), provides a powerful incentive for Schindler to do whatever he can to save as many Jews as he can.

If one sign of a great scene is how memorable it is… the saga of the Girl in the Red Coat certainly passes that test.

How about you? What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, James! 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!

Great Scene: “The Player”

October 12th, 2014 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 Jon: The 1992 movie The Player, screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel. IMDB plot summary:

A Hollywood studio executive is being sent death threats by a writer whose script he rejected – but which one?

Jon actually suggested the long one-take scene introduction to the movie, but I couldn’t find it anywhere online. However toward the end of the opening credit sequence, there is a great scene in two parts where writers pitch potential movie projects to the Protagonist Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins).

Background:

* During the sessions where movies are pitched, one will always suggest certain actors for certain roles. For the female lead Julia Roberts is always mentioned, as well as Bruce Willis for the male lead. In the final scene of the in-movie movie you actually see Bruce Willis saving Julia Roberts.

* There is actually another scene featuring a movie pitch to Griffin Mill: The Graduate: Part II, a cameo by Buck Henry (as himself). Buck Henry co-wrote the screenplay for The Graduate.

* Writer Michael Tolkin actually had a film company ring him up and try to option Habeus Corpus, the blatantly ludicrous film that is pitched within the movie by Richard E. Grant’s character.

Why is this a great scene? Because anyone who has worked in the movie business can relate to the whole vibe in the room. Here are a few choice lines.

Pitch #1

Writer 1: Goldie [Hawn] goes to Africa. She’s found by this tribe.
Write 2: Of small people.
Writer 1: She’s found and they worship her.
Griffin: It’s like The Gods Must Be Crazy except the coke bottle is an actress.
Write 1: Right. It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.

Pitch #2

Griffin: So it’s a psychic, political, thriller comedy with a heart.
Writer: With a heart, not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate.

Yes, since the movie is rather a satire of Hollywood, both of these pitches are ‘pushed out’ in terms of reality, however conversations in studio and producer offices can get this absurd. In this sense, the scenes work, not only because they’re funny, they also pass the verisimilitude sniff test.

As to the This Movie meet That Movie schtick. That may have been really popular in the 80s and 90s, but nowadays it’s not something a writer would lead with, instead have it in your back pocket for subsequent discussions.

How about you? What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, Bretton! 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!

Great Scene: “Die Hard”

October 11th, 2014 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: The 1988 movie Die Hard, screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, novel by Roderick Thorp. IMDB plot summary:

John McClane, officer of the NYPD, tries to save wife Holly Gennaro and several others, taken hostage by German terrorist Hans Gruber during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles.

McClane (Bruce Willis) happens upon a stranger: It’s Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the story’s arch villain.

Some background:

* The scene in which Gruber and McClane meet was inserted into the script after Alan Rickman (Hans Gruber) was found to be proficient at mimicking American accents. The filmmakers had been looking for a way to have the two characters meet prior to the climax and capitalized on Rickman’s talent.

* The character of Hans Gruber is rumored to be based on author Roderick Thorp’s father, a known tyrant amongst friends and family.

* Much of the script was improvised due to the constant screenplay tweaks that were being made during filming.

* In the original script, the action took place over three days, but John McTiernan was inspired to have it take place over a single night by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This scene is great for a lot of reasons, but I want to focus on just one: Twists. In a little over 4 minutes, there are numerous twists — surprises, shifts, reveals and so forth. Let’s track them using the time clock in the scene embedded above:

0:16: Gruber jumps to the ground only to discover he is standing next to McClane. Oops!

0:26: Gruber puts on his ‘scared hostage’ act. Clever boy!

1:15: Gruber tries to get his pistol, which he has stashed in a wall, but McClane stops him. Sorry, Hans!

Note: There is actually a cutaway at 1:25, but the video puts together the two parts of the scene.

2:25: McClane introduces himself by name and tests Gruber by asking his name. Busted! What’s cool is that there just happens to be a roster of employee names on the wall. So when Gruber answers, “Clay. Bill Clay,” at 2:32, the camera pushes into the roster revealing “Clay Wm 29″. A clever and observant Bad Guy!

2:50: McClane hands over a pistol to Gruber, a gun into which McClane has just inserted a ammo clip. Holy shit!

3:15: Gruber drops the act and mutters something in German on his CB radio. McClane, why’d you give this bastard the gun?!?!

3:40: Gruber demands that McClane put down the gun and turn over the detonators, but McClane starts walking toward Gruber who has the pistol trained on McClane. Crazy New York cop!

4:06: Gruber pulls the trigger. Click. Click. The gun is empty. Damn you, McClane! You are one smart mofo!

4:12: McClane grabs the pistol and says, “You think I’m fucking stupid, Hans,” when the elevator dings. Ruuuuunnnn!

I count 9 twists in a four minute scene. Surprises. Revelations. And a flip-flopping of who seems to be in the position of power. And, of course, like all good action scenes, it ends by seamlessly moving into the beginning of the next scene: A shootout and chase.

How about you? What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, Bretton! 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!

Great Scene: “It Happened One Night”

October 10th, 2014 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 Bretton Zinger: The 1934 movie It Happened One Night, screen play by Robert Riskin. IMDB plot summary:

A spoiled heiress, running away from her family, is helped by a man who’s actually a reporter looking for a story.

Peter Warne (Clark Gable) attempts to school Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) on the fine art of hitchhiking.

Some background:

* This was the first film to win the Oscar “grand slam” (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Screenplay).

* When director Frank Capra asked Claudette Colbert to expose her leg for the hitchhiking scene, she at first refused. Later, after having seen the leg of her body double, she changed her mind insisting that “that is not my leg!”

* Claudette Colbert complained nearly every day during the making of the film. On the last day of shooting, she told a friend “I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made”.

This scene unfolds beautifully:

Beginning: Life on the road including Ellie struggling to walk in her shoes, Peter plucking a piece of hay (from the night before) from Ellie’s teeth, and Peter’s discourse on the virtue of raw carrots (they have no money for food).

Middle: Peter’s philosophy and technique on getting a ride using his thumb and body language… which fails miserably.

End: Ellie gives it a shot using her leg to stop the approaching car.

The scene is noteworthy for many reasons. Here are three. First, it represents a switch in the dynamic between the two whereby Ellie helps solve their problem, not Peter. Second, there is a sexual subtext in Ellie showing her leg. And third, the fact she would do that suggests how far she has come in loosening up.

By the way, the carrot bit of business is a setup for a later payoff. Here Ellie can’t imagine eating a raw carrot. Later she does, again a sign of her transformation. And you do know this scene was the inspiration for the animated character Bugs Bunny?

How about you?

What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, Bretton! 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!

Great Scene: “The Big Lebowski”

October 9th, 2014 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 James Schramm: The 1998 movie The Big Lebowski, written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. IMDB plot summary:

“Dude” Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it.

In this scene, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and The Dude (Jeff Bridges) bid farewell to Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi).

Here is text of Walter’s benediction:

Donny was a good bowler, and a good man. He was one of us. He was a man who loved the outdoors… and bowling, and as a surfer he explored the beaches of Southern California, from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and… up to… Pismo. He died, like so many young men of his generation, he died before his time. In your wisdom, Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright flowering young men at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364. These young men gave their lives. And so would Donny. Donny, who loved bowling. And so, Theodore Donald Karabotsos, in accordance with what we think your dying wishes might well have been, we commit your final mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so well. Good night, sweet prince.

Such a great scene and for many reasons:

* Let’s start with the fact Donny’s ashes are inside a Folger’s coffee can.

* How about Walter veering off into yet another one of his diatribes about the Vietnam War, then the awkward segue back to the matters at hand: “These young men gave their lives. And so would Donny, who loved bowling.” Yes, Walter went far afield, but he brought it back… with bowling.

* Then the touching end. The Dude blows up at Walter about bringing up Vietnam, then Walter embraces the Dude, and then the Dude reveals what’s underneath his anger: Sadness at losing Donny.

What is ironic in the extreme is that Donny, who always seems to be behind everyone else about everything, a true innocent, he is the one who gets whacked. It’s not fair. Then again, this is the Coen brothers’ universe and ‘fair’ has little to do with anything.

What’s your perspective on this scene? Why does it work? What do you take away from it?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, James! 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!

Great Scene: “Thief”

October 8th, 2014 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 jhenderson: The 1981 movie Thief, screenplay and screen story by Michael Mann. IMDB plot summary:

Becoming closer to his dream of leading a normal life, a professional safecracker agrees to do a job for the mafia, who have other plans for him.

In this scene, Frank (James Caan) meets with an old flame Jessie (Tuesday Weld).

Some background notes:

* The screenplay for this film was adapted from the novel “The Home Invaders”, written by Frank Hohimer, himself a professional thief. Hohimer was serving time in prison at the time this film was in production.

* When Frank tries to light his cigarette in the diner scene, the lighter does not work. This was not scripted. The prison story that Frank tells in his monologue is based on a letter Michael Mann received from a real inmate.

* After The Godfather (1972), this is James Caan’s favorite film of his own. He has stated that his monologue in the diner is the scene he is most proud of in his career.

It’s a 10-minute scene. All dialogue. Yeah, movies could do that 30 years ago. Why? Even though a majority of the lines are exposition, they are compelling, capped off by Frank’s monologue about his life in prison, how he fought off being “gang banged”.

The scene also has a three-act structure of its own:

Beginning: Frank presses Jessie to update him on her life which she does — illegal activities, a former lover now dead.

Middle: Frank’s monologue about prison life leading up to the revelation of a small collage he keeps folded up in his wallet as inspiration — his life, the one he wants.

End: Frank makes his pitch for Jessie to live her life with him, fill the spot in the collage he made for her. At first, she refuses, but after he makes one final plea, she agrees. Scene out.

We’d be hard-pressed to find a contemporary mainstream movie which would take up about 8% of screen time for one scene comprised of two ‘talking heads’. But this scene worked in 1981. And it works today.

What’s your perspective on this scene? Why does it work? What do you take away from it?

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

Thanks for the suggestion, jhenderson! 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!

Great Scene: “Rounders”

October 7th, 2014 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 1998 movie Rounders, written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman. IMDB plot summary:

A young man is a reformed gambler who must return to playing big stakes poker to help a friend pay off loan sharks.

It’s the final showdown between Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) and Teddy KGB (John Malkovich). The irony is Mike finds himself in this tense situation because of a debt, not owed by him, but his friend Worm (Edward Norton Jr.). This is literally do-or-die:

One thing about a poker scene: You can really milk the tension as the filmmakers do here in spades. With Teddy’s increasing mania, several shots of the Heavy waiting to pound on Mike, a room full of thugs… and what looks to be a shit hand being dealt Mike’s way. But there he sits: “Check… check… check.” Great stuff.

There’s a rumor floating around about Rounders 2. That’s one sequel I can get behind.

What’s your take on this scene? Why does it work so well? What takeaways are there for us?

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!

Great Scene: “Michael Clayton”

October 6th, 2014 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!