Great Scene: “Sideways”

July 20th, 2016 by

If one of my students can’t quite grasp the concept of “subtext,” often I’ll have them read this scene in the movie Sideways. Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (based on the novel by Rex Pickett), it’s a great script for many reasons, not the least of which is that Payne & Taylor make us care about Miles (Paul Giamatti), the story’s largely unlikeable protagonist.

In this scene, Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen) have been sharing a few moments alone together. Up to this point, there have been some indirect ‘messages’ each has sent to the other signaling perhaps a mutual romantic interest. And then Maya asks a question:

                      Why are you so into Pinot? It's like
                      a thing with you.

            Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the question.
            He searches for the answer in his glass and begins slowly.

                      I don't know. It's a hard grape to
                      grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned,
                      temperamental, ripens early. It's
                      not a survivor like Cabernet that
                      can grow anywhere and thrive even
                      when neglected. Pinot needs constant
                      care and attention and in fact can
                      only grow in specific little tucked-
                      away corners of the world. And only
                      the most patient and nurturing growers
                      can do it really, can tap into Pinot's
                      most fragile, delicate qualities.
                      Only when someone has taken the time
                      to truly understand its potential
                      can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest
                      expression. And when that happens,
                      its flavors are the most haunting
                      and brilliant and subtle and thrilling
                      and ancient on the planet.

            Maya has found this answer revealing and moving.

                      I mean, Cabernets can be powerful
                      and exalting, but they seem prosaic
                      to me for some reason. By comparison.
                      How about you?

                      What about me?

                      I don't know. Why are you into wine?

                      I suppose I got really into wine
                      originally through my ex-husband. He
                      had a big, kind of show-off cellar.
                      But then I found out that I have a
                      really sharp palate, and the more I
                      drank, the more I liked what it made
                      me think about.

                      Yeah? Like what?

                      Like what a fraud he was.

            Miles laughs.

                      No, but I do like to think about the
                      life of wine, how it's a living thing.
                      I like to think about what was going
                      on the year the grapes were growing,
                      how the sun was shining that summer
                      or if it rained... what the weather
                      was like. I think about all those
                      people who tended and picked the
                      grapes, and if it's an old wine, how
                      many of them must be dead by now. I
                      love how wine continues to evolve,
                      how every time I open a bottle it's
                      going to taste different than if I
                      had opened it on any other day.
                      Because a bottle of wine is actually
                      alive -- it's constantly evolving
                      and gaining complexity. That is,
                      until it peaks -- like your '61 --
                      and begins its steady, inevitable
                      decline. And it tastes so fucking

            Now it is Miles's turn to be swept away. Maya's face tells
            us the moment is right, but Miles remains frozen. He needs
            another sign, and Maya is bold enough to offer it: reaches
            out and places one hand atop his.

                      Bathroom over there?


            Miles gets up and walks out. Maya sighs and gets and American
            Spirit out of her purse.

So what is Miles really talking about? In the External World of this screenplay universe, he’s talking about wine, but in the Internal World he’s talking about — himself. “Pinot needs constant care and attention… only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it… tap into Pinot’s most fragile, delicate qualities… only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential… coaxed into its fullest expression… the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient.” In that moment, this is Miles’ beatific expression of his own self-image, a misunderstood person, unappreciated novelist, and an unrequited romantic.

Now let’s look at Maya’s monologue to see who she’s really talking about: “It’s a living thing… continues to evolve… actually alive… constantly evolving, gaining complexity.” Again these words resonate about the speaker as Maya works as a waitress, however she’s evolving by taking college courses, learning about wine, and has aspirations about taking that up as a career.

In dialogue, subtext is where characters talk about Subject A (in the External World), but mean something about Subject B (in the Internal World). If you find your characters’ dialogue to be too ‘on-the-nose’ or play too much ‘up top’ in scenes, find something completely unrelated to what you want the characters to communicate — washing dishes, changing the oil in the car, playing golf. Give them some bit of business to do – then see what your characters do with that to communicate what they really mean to talk about.

Great Scene: “Young Frankenstein”

July 13th, 2016 by

Ah, the old song-and-dance routine. A Hollywood staple. Images of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron swooping across the silver screen. And of course, that incomparable duo Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle from the fantastic comedy Young Frankenstein (1974). Adapted by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks from Mary Shelly’s famous novel, the movie provides one send-up of horror movies after another including this great dance scene, where Wilder, playing Dr. Frankenstein, introduces his creation The Monster, played by Boyle, to a live theater audience:

109	ANOTHER ANGLE								

	as A SPOTLIGHT hits the darkness next to him.

	And there -- IN TOP HAT AND TAILS -- stands the Monster.
	he is heavily made up.

				(playing the piano
				and singing)
			If you're blue and you
			don't know where to
			go to, why don't you...

	The Monster accompanies the music with short, simple
	"Soft Shoe" steps.

			...go where fashion

			Poo -- tmmm anngh ma Ritz!

			Diff'rent types who wear
			a day coat, pants
			with stripes and cutaway
			coat, perfect

			Poo -- tmmm anngh ma Ritz!

			Dressed up like a
			million dollar
			Trying hard to
			look like Gary

			Soo -- pah doo -- per.

	The Audience's faces are absolutely blank.  Inga and
	Igor are thrilled.

			Come let's mix where Rock-
			e -- fellers walk
			with sticks or 'um-ber-
			el-las' in their


			Poo -- tmmm anngh ma Ritz!

	The Monster gets a tomato right in the face.  He stops cold.

			Dressed up like a
			million dollar
			Trying hard to
			look like Gary
			Coo -- per.


				(to the Monster)
			That's your cue.  Go on!


				(trying to cover)
			...Su-per du-per.
			Come let's mix where Rock-
			e-fellers walk
			with sticks or 'um-ber-
			el-las' in their

	The Monster knows it's his cue:  he just looks at Freddy.


			For  God's sake -- go on!  Are you
			trying to make me look like a fool.
			Sing, you amateur!  Sing!!

	The Monster gets a raw egg in his face.

			Get him off!
			What else can your toy do?

			Fake??  You stupid call
			my creation a fake???  What do you
			know about truth?  You're the fakes!
			All of you!  I wouldn't come to you
			with a hang-nail.

	The monster gets another tomato in his face.


				(running to him)
			Wait!  Stop!  Don't give them the
			satisfaction.  I know it's tough,
			but look at how far we've come!
			Are you going to throw it all
			away now??

	The Monster thinks, as the tomato drips down his face.
	He is touched by Freddy's reasoning, but still burning
	with resentment.


			Don't you think I know that?  But
			what are you judging by?  Bucharest???
			This was always a hick town.  They
			can't get a 'Bus and Truck' company
			to come in here.  Are you going to
			let these idiots get the best of you?
			...Or are you going to stand up like
			a man and show them that you've got
			more dignity in your little finger
			than they've got in all their beer-
			bloated bodies put together?

	The Monster considers this plea for a moment.  Then gives
	Freddy a colossal W H A C K and jumps into the Audience.

110	THE AUDIENCE									110

	screams and scatters for the exits.


				(as he picks himself up
				off the stage floor)
			I chose the wrong song.

Here’s the scene as it plays in the movie:

I happened to catch the last half of Young Frankenstein a few months ago. It still holds up. Definitely add it to your to-see list.

[Originally posted April 17, 2009]

Great Scene: “Kramer vs. Kramer”

July 6th, 2016 by

Here is an IMDB plot summary of the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer, screenplay by Robert Benton, based on a novel by Avery Corman:

A just divorced man must learn to care for his son on his own, and then must fight in court to keep custody of him.

There are two scenes in the movie that have always stuck with me, a classic example of a set-up & payoff. This first is the morning after Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) has left her husband Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) and their son Billy (Justin Henry). Ted, who has been a working father and knows very little about housework, perhaps even less about his son, tries to keep things upbeat as he and Billy wake up:

	Ted struggles to his feet and THE CAMERA TRACKS WITH
	THEM as they start toward the kitchen.

			When is mommy coming back?

			Soon.  Very soon.

	By now they are inside the kitchen, Ted looks around.

27    HIS P.O.V.: There, on the kitchen cabinet is a
	box of "natural grain" cereal, a jar of honey, some
	wheat germ, and a banana, with carefully written
	instructions from Joanna underneath.

	ON TED--He takes one look at the note, crumples it
	up and tosses it in the wastebasket.

				(the camp counselor)
			I'll tell you what, kiddo--why
			don't I fix us some French toast?

			Wow!  French toast, really?

				(the camp counselor)
			Sure.  Didn't I ever tell you
			French toast was my specialty?
			I'll bet I never told you that.
			Now then, the first thing we
			need is...
				(trying desperately
				to remember)
			... eggs!  Right?

	Billy nods.  Ted opens the refrigerator and takes some

			This is terrific ... isn't this

	As Ted begins the process of making French toast, it
	soon becomes obvious that he has no idea of what he is
	doing.  What follows is a symphony in incompetence on
	Ted's part.  He breaks the eggs into a bowl and ends up
	with most of the shell mixed up with the egg.  Then he
	takes a piece of bread and drops it into bowl.

				(saying it will
				make it so)
			I'm having a good time...Are you
			having a good time?

	ON BILLY--watching all of this with increasing

			You forgot the milk.

				(still the camp
			That's right.  You're absolutely
			right...It's been a long time
			since I made French toast.

	Ted takes a container of milk, pours it into the bowl
	so that it is filled to the brim.  Then he sloshes the
	bread around until it is half-dissolved.

			Look at this, isn't this

	He lops off a huge hunk of butter, drops it into an
	omelet pan and turns up the flame.

	ON BILLY--watching.  He looks as though he is about to
	throw up.

			What about my orange juice?

				(the counterman)
			Right.  One O.J. coming up.

	He opens the refrigerator and starts to get the orange
	juice.  As he does, black smoke begins to billow
	ominously from the frying pan.


	Ted turns, spots the smoke.

			Don't worry.. .Everything's


	He lunges for the handle of the frying pan, which by
	now is very hot.  He grabs it, lets out a howl of pain
	and the whole mess, frying pan, butter, bread, goes
	crashing to the floor.

	CLOSE ON TED--Suddenly all the rage comes pouring out.

			Goddam! Son of a bitch!

	REACTION, BILLY--terrified.

	WIDE SHOT--as Ted kneels down and begins to clean up
	the mess.

				(to himself as much as
				to Billy)
			It's okay.  It's gonna be okay...
			Everything's going to be all

There is a second french toast scene which is toward the very end of the movie, the morning when Billy is going to live with his mother:


	ON TED AND BILLY--They stand side by side, like a
	surgeon and his assistant.  Spread out on the counter
	in front of them are the makings of French toast.
	The following is done with great efficiency, in
	contrast to the first time we saw them go through the
	same ritual.  They work in silence except for an
	occasional command.  Each concentrating on this last
	moment of closeness, each doing his best to avoid
	thinking about Billy's departure.  Finally:

	ON BILLY--looking at his father, trying to memorize
	the older man's face.

	Ted turns, sees his son watching him.

				(with false gaiety)
			Hey?  What's doin' with that
			bread?  Let's see a little hustle
			around here.

Here are the two scenes as they appear in the movie:

The second french toast scene is at the 1:55 mark in the clip:

A good set-up & payoff can serve as a measuring stick of a character’s metamorphosis. In this case, these two little scenes show at first how little Ted knows about parenting, then by the second scene, how well he’s evolved into becoming a real parent.

Also note this terrific little change in the dialogue: In the first scene, instead of Ted swearing a generic “Goddam,” as in the script, Ted blurts out, “God damn her.” It’s a fantastic way to show Ted projecting his anger and hurt over what Joanna has done — leaving him — onto the pain and frustration of burning his hand with the skillet. Her shadow has loomed over the entire scene. That one little change brings Joanna — and her absence — to the forefront of the moment.

What other scenes do you recall from Kramer vs. Kramer?

[Originally posted September 3, 2010]

Great Scene: “Thelma & Louise”

June 29th, 2016 by

A great ending to a movie is (in my view) the only ending it should have. Oh, a movie could have multiple endings, but a well-constructed plot should lead to the story’s only real ending. And when that ending is both logical and shocking, then you have the makings of a great scene — like the climax of Thelma & Louise (1991), written by Callie Khouri.

Think about it: What other ending could T&L have? They turn themselves in? That would have been a false choice, going against everything these two women had been doing and saying for the bulk of the movie. Clearly the idea of turning themselves in is sparking through their minds as they look at “each other really hard,” but both of them know they can’t turn back now. They’ve gone too far and learned too much, about each other, themselves, and life.

The movie’s ending was a critical component, too, in the movie’s box office success because everybody talked about it when it was released.

Here’s the scripted version of the ending to Thelma & Louise:

            INT.  CAR - DAY

            Louise and Thelma are looking at each other.

                                  POLICE (O.S.)
                           (over loudspeaker)
                      Turn off the engine and place your
                      hands in the air!

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal is about to crawl out of his skin.  He can't believe
            this thing is getting out of control.  He jumps in front of

                      Max!  Let me talk to 'em!  I can't
                      believe this!  You've gotta do
                      something here!

            Max goes around Hal and continues walking.  Hal jumps in
            front of Max again and blocks his way.

                      I'm sorry to bother you, I know you're
                      real busy right now, but how many
                      times, Max?  How many times has that
                      woman gotta be fucked over?  You
                      could lift one finger and save her
                      ass and you won't even do that?

                           (grabbing Hal)
                      Get a hold of yourself!  You are way
                      out of your jurisdiction, now come
                      on!  Calm down!  Don't make me sorry
                      I let you come!

            Max lets go of Hal's lapels.

                           (under his breath)
                      Shit!  I can't fucking believe this!

            Hal walks along with a look of total disbelief on his face.
            He's shaking his head.  Slowly he breaks into a trot and
            starts heading toward the front line.

                      Hey.  Hey!

            Hal is running now and clears the front row of cars.

            There is a lot of confusion among the officers on the front
            row.  Some shout, some lower their guns to look.

                                  ARIZONA COP #1
                      What in the hell?!

                                  ARIZONA #2
                           (lowering his rifle)
                      The son of a bitch is in my way!

            INT.  CAR - DAY

            They are still looking at each other really hard.

                      You're a good friend.

                      You, too, sweetie, the best.


            MUSIC:  B.B. King song entitled "Better Not Look Down" begins.
            It is very upbeat.

                      Are you sure?

            Thelma nods.

                      Hit it.

            Louise puts the car in gear and FLOORS it.

                                                                 CUT TO:

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            Hal's eyes widen for a moment at what he sees, and then a
            sense of calm overtakes him and he mouths the word "alright."

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      I've been around, I've seem some
                      things, People movin' faster than
                      the speed of sound, faster than a
                      speedin' bullet.  People livin' like
                      Superman, all day and all night.  I
                      won't say if it's wrong or I won't
                      say if it's right.  I'm pretty fast
                      myself.  But I do have some advice
                      to pass along, right here in the
                      words to this song...

            EXT.  DESERT - DAY

            The cops all lower their weapons as looks of shock and
            disbelief cover their faces.  A cloud of dust blows THROUGH
            THE FRAME as the speeding car sails over the edge of the

                                  B.B. KING SONG (V.O.)
                      Better not look down, if you wanna
                      keep on flyin'.  Put the hammer down,
                      keep it full speed ahead.  Better
                      not look back or you might just wind
                      up cryin'.  You can keep it movin'
                      if you don't look down...

                                                                FADE OUT

                                      THE END

And here’s the movie version. Sans B.B. King and with slightly different dialogue between Thelma and Louise:

Great scene. Great ending.

[Originally posted April 24, 2009]

Great Scene: “Double Indemnity”

June 22nd, 2016 by

Great dialogue often makes a great scene. And some of the best dialogue in Hwood movie history exists in older movies — like this one Double Indemnity (1944), currently the #47 most popular film on the top 250 list. This scene occurs early in the movie where Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), smooth-talking insurance salesman, first intersects with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), wife of one of Neff’s clients.

When Neff first enters the Dietrichson house, he has a ‘chance’ meeting with Phyllis, he at the bottom of the stairs, she at the top of the stairs — wrapped in nothing but a towel. He proceeds into the living room, waiting for Phyllis to “put something on.” When she enters the room, Neff goes on for a bit about insurance, but then the conversation takes a turn down double entrendre boulevard, one sexy juiced-up line after another:

His eyes fall on the anklet again.

              I wish you'd tell me what's engraved
              on that anklet.

              Just my name.

              As for instance?


              Phyllis. I think I like that.

              But you're not sure?

              I'd have to drive it around the block
              a couple of times.

                    (Standing up again)
              Mr. Neff, why don't you drop by
              tomorrow evening about eight-thirty.
              He'll be in then.


              My husband. You were anxious to talk
              to him weren't you?

              Sure, only I'm getting over it a
              little. If you know what I mean.

              There's a speed limit in this state,
              Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.

              How fast was I going, officer?

              I'd say about ninety.

              Suppose you get down off your
              motorcycle and give me a ticket.

              Suppose I let you off with a warning
              this time.

              Suppose it doesn't take.

              Suppose I have to whack you over the

              Suppose I bust out crying and put my
              head on your shoulder.

              Suppose you try putting it on my
              husband's shoulder.

              That tears it.

Neff takes his hat and briefcase.

              Eight-thirty tomorrow evening then,
              Mrs. Dietrichson.

              That's what I suggested.

They both move toward the archway.


               Will you be here, too?

               I guess so. I usually am.

               Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?

                      (Opening the door)
               I wonder if I know what you mean.

               I wonder if you wonder.

He walks out.

Great stuff, each character trying to top the other in their little dance of seduction, the dialogue courtesy of screenwriter-director Billy Wilder and the great Raymond Chandler, based on the novel “Three of a Kind” by James M. Cain. Of course, Phyllis has to play hard to get — if she immediately fell into Neff’s arms, he’d be suspicious of her motives. But this is clearly the first step in her efforts to esnare Neff in her plan to have him kill her husband.

One interesting side note: The emergence of subtext in dialogue was hastened by the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. Here is a partial list of some prohibited items:

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:

Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), “hell,” “damn,” “Gawd,” and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
The illegal traffic in drugs;
Any inference of sex perversion;
White slavery;
Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
Children’s sex organs;
Ridicule of the clergy;
Willful offense to any nation, race or creed;

And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:

The use of the flag;
International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavorable light another country’s religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
The use of firearms;
Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
Methods of smuggling;
Third-degree methods;
Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
Sympathy for criminals;
Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
Branding of people or animals;
The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
Rape or attempted rape;
First-night scenes;
Man and woman in bed together;
Deliberate seduction of girls;
The institution of marriage;
Surgical operations;
The use of drugs;
Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a “heavy.”

The prohibition regarding all things sexual meant that writers were forced to use innuendo and metaphors to suggest sexual themes, something we see in spades in the example here in Double Indemnity.

Here is the scene in the movie:

[Originally posted June 19, 2009]

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]