Scene Description Spotlight: “The African Queen”

August 30th, 2013 by

Today a blast from the past: An excerpt from the shooting script for the movie The African Queen (1951), adapted from the C.S. Forrester novel by James Agee and John Huston (Peter Viertel’s name is on the script, but he received no formal credit). This script was written six decades ago and is a stark reminder of how different current screenwriting style is than that of yesteryear, particularly re scene description.

Here is how the script introduces one of the two lead characters, Rose (Katherine Hepburn):

             
EXT. A NATIVE VILLAGE IN A CLEARING BETWEEN THE JUNGLE AND 
THE RIVER. LATE MORNING
 
LONG SHOT -- A CHAPEL

Intense light and heat, a stifling silence. Then the SOUND 
of a reedy organ, of two voices which make the words distinct, 
and of miscellaneous shy, muffled, dragging voices, beginning
a hymn:

VOICES
(singing)
"Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah..."

INT. CHAPEL -- LONG SHOT -- THE LENGTH OF THE BLEAK CHAPEL
PAST THE CONGREGATION, ON BROTHER, AT THE LECTERN, AND ROSE,
AT THE ORGAN

BROTHER, a missionary, faces CAMERA near center; ROSE, his 
sister, is at side, her face averted. Everybody is singing.

"Pilgrim through this barren land..."

MEDIUM SHOT -- BROTHER:

middle-aged, rock-featured, bald, sweating painfully, very 
much in earnest. He is very watchful of his flock. He sings 
as loud as he can, rather nasally, and tries to drive the 
meaning of each word home as if it were a nail. He is beating
with his hand, and trying hard to whip up the dragging tempo:

"I am weak, but Thou art mighty..."

CLOSER SHOT -- ROSE

early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, very hot
but sweating less than Brother.

She is pumping the pedals vigorously, spreading with her
knees the wings of wood which control the loudness, utilizing
various stops for expressiveness of special phrases, and 
rather desperately studying the open hymnal, just managing 
to play the right notes -- a very busy woman. She, too, is 
singing her best and loudest, an innocent, arid, reedy 
soprano; and she, too, is very attentive to the meanings of
words:

"Hold me with Thy powerful hand."

INSERT -- HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FOREGOING LINE, AN EXOTIC AND 
HORRIBLE CENTIPEDE-LIKE CREATURE SLITHERS INTO VIEW BETWEEN 
TWO OF THE ORGAN KEYS. WITHOUT INTERRUPTING HER PLAYING, AS 
METHODICALLY AS SHE WOULD PULL OUT A NEW STOP, ROSE SWIPES
IT AWAY.

ROSE -- AS BEFORE --

completes "Thy Powerful Hand"; o.s. Voices of singers. 
Unperturbed, Rose finishes her casual disposal of the bug 
and pulls out a new stop.

And here is how the script introduces the other main character Allnut (Humphrey Bogart):

We close on the old dame with the bone singing --

"...my journey through." o.s., on "...fiery, cloudy pillar", 
a queer SOUND, steadily louder: the absurdly flatulent, 
yammering syncopation of a rachitic steam motor. Eyes begin 
to wander from hymnals: CUT IN Brother frowning and singing 
harder trying to impose order; attention to the hymn begins 
to fall apart a little; FOLLOW the white, veering eyes to 
FRAME, through the open window.

LONG SHOT -- THE AFRICAN QUEEN

whose WHISTLE lets out a steamy whinny, then REPEATS it, 
with great self-satisfaction. She is squat, flat-bottomed -- 
thirty feet long. A tattered awning roofs in six feet of her 
stern. Amidships stand her boiler and engine. A stumpy funnel 
reaches up a little higher than the awning.

ON SECOND WHINNY,

CUT TO:

MEDIUM CLOSE SHOT -- ALLNUTT -- ON HIS BOAT

He is in worn, rather befouled white clothes. He is barefooted 
and his feet are cocked up and he is sitting on his shoulder 
blades, smoking a bad cigar. He wears a ratty boater, 
slantwise, against the sunlight. He is attended by two young 
Negroes so tall, thin and gracile they suggest black macaroni. 
One is proudly and busily puttering at the engine, which 
requires a lot of attention: the other is fanning ALLNUTT, 
who is feeling just fine. Allnutt speaks to the fanner in 
Swahili. The young man without breaking the rhythm of his 
fanning, licks out one long, boneless arm and alters the 
lashed tiller; the Queen begins to swerve toward shore. o.s., 
the hymn continues, all but drowned by motor noise.

LONG SHOT -- INT. CHAPEL

Rose pulls out all the stops, spreads her knees, and pumps 
like mad in her effort to drown out the ENGINE SOUND. Brother 
sweats and sings even harder, scowling, shaking his head. 
The singing is fraying out half to hell; the congregation is 
a solid black wall of wandering eyes; a few pious converts 
frown or nudge at the less pious; a little group is coalescing 
toward the window.

The hymn, meanwhile, continues:

"Feed me with the heavenly manna in this barren wilderness, 
Be my sword, my shield, my banner, be the Lord my 
righteousness."

Rose's sense of artistic propriety is too much for her. To 
keep things going, she ought to play loud, but on the next 
line --

"When I tread the verge of Jordan..." she shuts down to the 
vox humana and the tremolo and maintains that through --

"Bid my anxious fears subside."

On this line, Allnutt appears and lounges against the front 
door frame still drawing on his cigar. Rose lets everything 
rip fortissimo on the closing lines:

"Death of death, and hell's destruction land me safe on 
Canaan's side."

By the time of "hell's destruction," Allnutt becomes aware 
that a lighted cigar in church is bad manners, and, nodding 
casual apology to Brother, tosses it away onto the packed 
dirt, out of our sight.

Rather than dissecting the scenes myself, let’s open it up for discussion. Critiquing these pages, what elements of scene description do you see as being similar and dissimilar to contemporary style guidelines?

I’m posting this to end our series on scene description to make a point: style and format changes. It is not sacrosanct. It evolves. Your goal, as a writer, is simply this: Do what you need to do to tell the most entertaining yet clear iteration of your story.

[Originally posted June 3, 2010]

Scene Description Spotlight: “Titanic”

August 29th, 2013 by

Before Avatar went on to gross $2.72B worldwide, writer-director James Cameron created another movie phenomenon called Titanic (1997) which grossed a mere $1.84B worldwide.

One key to the success of Titanic was its appeal to adolescent girls, a significant number of them attending the movie multiple times. That’s not surprising because while the Plotline of the story follows the disaster of the ship’s sinking, the Themeline tracks the star-crossed romance between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), a romance that resonated strongly with audiences around the world. But why? Here’s one reason.

The scene below recounts the last moments of the couple together after Jack has said to Rose, “You must do me this honor… promise me you will survive… that you will never give up… no matter what happens… no matter how hopeless… promise me now, and never let go of that promise.”

291 EXT. OCEAN

IN A HOVERING DOWNANGLE we see Jack and Rose floating in the black water.
The stars reflect in the mill pond surface, and the two of them seem to be
floating in interstellar space. They are absolutely still. Their hands are
locked together. Rose is staring upwards at the canopy of stars wheeling
above her. The music is transparent, floating... as the long sleep steals
over Rose, and she feels peace.

CLOSE ON Rose's face. Pale, like the faces of the dead. She seems to be
floating in a void. Rose is in a semi-hallucinatory state. She knows she is
dying. Her lips barely move as she sings a scrap of Jack's song:

					 ROSE
                     "Come Josephine in my flying machine..."

ROSE'S POV: The stars. Like you've never seen them. The Milky Way a
glorious band from horizon to horizon.

A SHOOTING STAR flares... a line of light across the heavens.

TIGHT ON ROSE again. We see that her hair is dusted with frost crystals.
Her breathing is so shallow, she is almost motionless. Her eyes track down
from the stars to the water.

ROSE'S POV... SLOW MOTION: The silhouette of a boat crossing the stars.
She sees men in it, rowing so slowly the oars lift out of the syrupy water,
leaving weightless pearls floating in the air. The VOICES of the men sound
slow and DISTORTED.

Then the lookout flashes his torch toward her and the light flares across
the water, silouetting the bobbing corpses in between. It flicks past her
motionless form and moves on. The boat is 50 feet away, and moving past
her. The men look away.

Rose lifts her head to turn to Jack. We see that her hair has frozen to the
wood under her.

					 ROSE
                             (barely audible)
                      Jack.

She touches his shoulder with her free hand. He doesn't respond. Rose
gently turns his face toward her. It is rimed with frost.

He seems to be sleeping peacefully.

But he is not asleep.

Rose can only stare at his still face as the realization goes through her.

					 ROSE
                      Oh, Jack.

All hope, will and spirit leave her. She looks at the boat. It is further
away now, the voices fainter. Rose watches them go.

She closes her eyes. She is so weak, and there just seems to be no reason
to even try.

And then... her eyes snap open.

She raises her head suddenly, cracking the ice as she rips her hair off the
wood. She calls out, but her voice is so weak they don't hear her. The boat
is invisible now, the torch light a star impossibly far away. She struggles
to draw breath, calling again.

292 IN THE BOAT Lowe hears nothing behind him. He points to something
ahead, turning the tiller.

293 ROSE struggles to move. Her hand, she realizes, is actually frozen to
Jack's. She breaths on it, melting the ice a little, and gently unclasps
their hands, breaking away a thin tinkling film.

					 ROSE
                       I won't let go. I promise.

She releases him and he sinks into the black water. He seems to fade out
like a spirit returning to some immaterial plane.

Rose rolls off the floating staircase and plunges into the icy water. She
swims to Chief Officer Wilde's body and grabs his whistle. She starts to
BLOW THE WHISTLE with all the strength in her body. Its sound slaps across
the still water.

294 IN BOAT 14 Lowe whips around at the sound of the whistle.

					 LOWE
                           (turning the tiller)
                      Row back! That way! Pull!

Rose keeps blowing as the boat comes to her. She is still blowing when Lowe
takes the whistle from her mouth as they haul her into the boat. She slips
into uncosciousness and they scramble to cover her with blankets...

Look what Cameron does with his scene description:

IN A HOVERING DOWNANGLE we see Jack and Rose floating in the black water.
The stars reflect in the mill pond surface, and the two of them seem to be
floating in interstellar space. They are absolutely still. Their hands are
locked together. Rose is staring upwards at the canopy of stars wheeling
above her. The music is transparent, floating... as the long sleep steals
over Rose, and she feels peace.

----

ROSE'S POV: The stars. Like you've never seen them. The Milky Way a
glorious band from horizon to horizon.

Cameron creates an almost celestial feel, as if Jack and Rose are somewhere near Heaven. And then into this almost pastoral moment, he provides a contrast:

ROSE'S POV... SLOW MOTION: The silhouette of a boat crossing the stars.
She sees men in it, rowing so slowly the oars lift out of the syrupy water,
leaving weightless pearls floating in the air. The VOICES of the men sound
slow and DISTORTED.

Then the lookout flashes his torch toward her and the light flares across
the water, silouetting the bobbing corpses in between. It flicks past her
motionless form and moves on. The boat is 50 feet away, and moving past
her. The men look away.

You have two dimensions created here: Heaven (Death) and Earth (Life), both of which beckon to Rose. Indeed, the “peace” she feels in Heaven offers a stronger pull at the moment than the sounds and sights of Earth with the “VOICES of the men… slow and DISTORTED.”

And then there is Jack:

He seems to be sleeping peacefully.

But he is not asleep.

Rose can only stare at his still face as the realization goes through her.

					 ROSE
                      Oh, Jack.

All hope, will and spirit leave her. She looks at the boat. It is further
away now, the voices fainter. Rose watches them go.

She closes her eyes. She is so weak, and there just seems to be no reason
to even try.

Cameron’s description uses the realization that Jack is dead to push Rose even further toward Heaven and further away from Earth. But she has made a promise to Jack:

And then... her eyes snap open.

She raises her head suddenly, cracking the ice as she rips her hair off the
wood. She calls out, but her voice is so weak they don't hear her. The boat
is invisible now, the torch light a star impossibly far away. She struggles
to draw breath, calling again.

----

ROSE struggles to move. Her hand, she realizes, is actually frozen to
Jack's. She breaths on it, melting the ice a little, and gently unclasps
their hands, breaking away a thin tinkling film.

----

She releases him and he sinks into the black water. He seems to fade out
like a spirit returning to some immaterial plane.

She “releases him… like a spirit returning to some immaterial plane,” metaphorically allowing Jack to go to Heaven, where he belongs. And Rose? What of her fate?

Rose rolls off the floating staircase and plunges into the icy water. She
swims to Chief Officer Wilde's body and grabs his whistle. She starts to
BLOW THE WHISTLE with all the strength in her body. Its sound slaps across
the still water.

Spurred by the promise she made to Jack, Rose turns away from this Heaven’s gate and plunges back toward Earth, in effect ‘resurrecting’ herself, a final gesture of her love and commitment to Jack as he departs this mortal plane.

In effect, what Cameron strives to do with his description in this scene is add yet one final, metaphorical dimension to Jack and Rose’s love: its almost transcendent beauty. For Jack’s death and journey toward Heaven and Rose’s life and journey toward Earth may separate them temporally and physically, but binds them together permanently and spiritually.

[Originally posted June 17, 2010]

Scene Description Spotlight: “The Dark Knight”

August 28th, 2013 by

Today we shine the spotlight on a great piece of screenwriting, the screenplay for The Dark Knight, co-written by Christopher & Jonathan Nolan. If you want to understand the value of subplots, this sequence provides a mighty big one: Cross cutting between storylines to generate increasing tension.

Sequence set-up: Batman (Christian Bale) has ‘interrogated’ the Joker (Heath Ledger), who informs Batman that both Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are being held hostage at different locations. “You choose one life over the other,” Joker says, “Your friend, the district attorney. Or his blushing bride-to-be.”

INT. OBSERVATION ROOM, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT
Batman RACES past Gordon.

GORDON
Which one are you-

BATMAN
Dent knew the risks.

Gordon looks back- the Joker is bloody, but grinning.

EXT. MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

Several cops see Batman climb onto the bat-pod and TEAR off.

EXT. STREETS, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

Batman SWERVES into oncoming traffic, CHAOS in his wake.

EXT. GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

Gordon and his men SCRAMBLE into their cars...

INT. BASEMENT APARTMENT -- NIGHT

Black.

RACHEL
Can anyone hear me?

Harvey Dent opens his eyes. He's bound to a chair in a
dingy, unfurnished basement apartment.

DENT
Rachel? Rachel is that you?

RACHEL
(sobbing)
Harvey. You're OK. I thought...

Her voice is coming from a speakerphone on the floor.

DENT
It's OK, Rachel. Everything's going
to be just fine.

He looks around. Behind him, metal BARRELS, hooked up to a
car battery, with a TIMER counting down: five minutes.

INT. INTERROGATION ROOM, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

The Joker sits, smiling, content. Stephens guards the door.

THE JOKER
I want my phone call.

STEPHENS
That's nice.

THE JOKER
How many of your friends have I
killed?

STEPHENS
I'm a twenty year man. I can tell
the difference between punks who need
a little lesson in manners, and the
freaks like you who would just enjoy
it.
(quiet)
And you killed six of my friends.

INT. HOLDING AREA, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

The Fat Thug shuffles to the bars, where a COP stands guard.

FAT THUG
(agony)
Please. My insides hurt.

COP
Step away from the bars.

FAT THUG
The boss said he would make the
voices go away. He said he would go
inside and replace them with bright
lights. Like Christmas.

COP
That's great. Please step-

The Fat Thug COLLAPSES. The Cop grabs his radio.

INT. WAREHOUSE -- NIGHT

Rachel is bound to a chair. Behind her are barrels identical
to the ones behind Dent.

DENT
Can you move your chair?

RACHEL
No. Harvey, we don't have much time-

The timer connected to the bomb reads 2.47... 2.46...

INT. BASEMENT APARTMENT -- NIGHT

Dent DRAGS his chair, inching closer to the barrels.

DENT
Look for something to free yourself.

The chair JAMS against a ridge in the floor. Dent STRAINS to
reach the timer. Inches shy.

RACHEL
They said only one of us was going to
make it. That they'd let our...
(pause)
Our friends choose.

Dent strains... THE CHAIR, AND DENT, TOPPLE OVER- KNOCKING
OVER A BARREL.

RACHEL
Harvey? What's happening?

Dent, one side of his face pressed against the bare floor,
watches the open barrel SPEW DIESEL FUEL around him-

DENT
Nothing. I'm trying to...

Dent contorts his head to keep from swallowing any.

EXT. STREETS, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

The bat-pod SKIDS SIDEWAYS, WHEELS FLIPPING as the gyro keeps
Batman upright on the tumbling bike- it comes to rest- guns
lined up with a fire exit- BLOWS the door off its hinges-
JUMPS off the bike-

EXT. 52ND STREET, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

Gridlock. Gordon SWERVES onto the sidewalk. People SCATTER.

INT. INTERROGATION ROOM, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

The Joker sits like a kid kept after class. He smiles.

THE JOKER
You know why I use a knife,
Detective? Guns are too quick. You
don't get to savor all the little
emotions. See, in their last
moments, people show you who they
really are...

Stephens tries hard to ignore him. It isn't working.

THE JOKER
So, in a way, I knew your friends
better than you ever did.
(smiles)
Would you like to know which of them
were really cowards?

STEPHENS
(rolls up sleeves)
I know you're going to enjoy this.
But I'm going to enjoy it more.

Stephens PUNCHES the Joker in the gut.

INT. BASEMENT APARTMENT -- NIGHT

Dent is half submerged in diesel fuel.

RACHEL
Harvey, in case... I want you to know
something...

Dent CHOKES, his emotions overwhelming him.

DENT
Don't think like that, Rachel.
They're coming for you.

RACHEL
I know, but I don't want them to...

INT. WAREHOUSE -- NIGHT

Rachel looks at the timer. Ten seconds left.

RACHEL
I don't want to live without you.
Because I do have an answer, and my
answer is yes...

INT. HOLDING AREA, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

A MEDIC CUTS away the Fat Thug's shirt- his belly has large
INCISION, which has been closed with crude looking STITCHES-

MEDIC
He's got some kind of... contusion...

A RECTANGULAR SHAPE is visible under the skin above his
navel.

INT. DETECTIVE'S ROOM, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

Stephens shuffles out into the room, a piece of BROKEN GLASS
held to his THROAT by the Joker. Cops draw their weapons.

STEPHENS
This is my own damn fault. Just
shoot him.

DETECTIVE MURPHY
What do you want?

THE JOKER
I want my phone call.

The Detectives look at each other. One of them pulls out his
cell phone. TOSSES it to the Joker, who begins to dial.

INT. HOLDING AREA, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

The Medic gingerly PRESSES the rectangle. It illuminates, a
soft blue light visible through the skin.

COP
Is that a... phone?

INT. DETECTIVE'S ROOM, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

The Joker presses SEND. At the end of the room, the door to
the holding area EXPLODES-

INT. HALLWAY, TENEMENT -- NIGHT

Batman SPRINGS down the hall- stops at a door- KICKS it-

EXT. 52ND STREET, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

Cars PULL UP- Gordon gets out, carrying a fire ax-

INT. HALLWAY, TENEMENT -- NIGHT

Batman KICKS- the door gives-Batman SMASHES it open-

INT. BASEMENT APARTMENT -- NIGHT

...Batman BURSTS through the door- Dent looks up in horror-

DENT
NO! Not me... Why did you come for
me?!

Batman STARES at Dent. The Joker lied. The counter hits 5
seconds. Batman DRAGS Dent out- Dent FIGHTS to stay-

DENT
RACHEL!

RACHEL
Harvey? Harvey, it's okay...

DENT
RACHEL!!!

EXT. 52ND STREET, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

Gordon, axe in hand, RUNS towards the entrance-

INT. WAREHOUSE -- NIGHT

Rachel can hear Dent. The counter runs out.

RACHEL
(calm)
Somewhere-

AN EXPLOSION. ALL-CONSUMING.

EXT. 52ND STREET, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

The BLAST HURLS Gordon backward onto the hood of his car- THE
ENTIRE WAREHOUSE IS AN ENORMOUS EXPLOSION-

INT. BASEMENT APARTMENT -- NIGHT

Batman wraps his cape around Dent and hurls them both through
the door. Dent is SCREAMING-

EXT. 52ND STREET, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

Gordon picks himself up. The warehouse is an inferno. He
heads for it anyway. Five of his men have to RESTRAIN HIM.

EXT. ALLEY WAY, GOTHAM -- NIGHT

A SECOND EXPLOSION- Batman COVERS Dent as the FIREBALL HITS
them- IGNITING the diesel soaking Dent's left side- he starts
BURNING. And stops screaming. Batman ROLLS Dent on the wet
pavement... Dent SIZZLES. Silent.

INT. SPECIAL HOLDING AREA, MCU, GOTHAM CENTRAL -- NIGHT

The Joker walks to the bars of another cell. Grins.

THE JOKER
Hello there.

In his cell. Terrified. Lau.

Arguably one of the most important sequences in the movie because (1) it kills Rachel, thereby ending Bruce Wayne’s dream of quitting Batman and leading a normal life, (2) it forever scars Dent, both physically and emotionally, setting him off onto his own personal transformation and descent into ‘hell,’ and (3) it frees The Joker.

You can literally feel the sequence speeding toward its climax – and much of that energy is a result of the cross cuts between subplots. Let’s track them:

* Rachel held hostage

* Dent held hostage

* Batman’s desperate race to save Rachel

* Gordon desperate race to save Dent

* The Joker messing with Stephens

* The Fat Thug and his cell-phone bomb

The sequence is cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, building to the point that by P. 93 and 94, the end of the sequence, there’s hardly any dialogue, instead a primary slugline and a line of scene description, followed by a cross cut indicated by another primary slugline and a line of scene description, and so on and so on.

The film version is slightly different in terms of some dialogue and swapping out various cross cuts, but the screenplay pages sell it – you read it and you get the sequence.

BTW, there is an excellent example of how movies manipulate time. On P. 92, there’s this:

INT. WAREHOUSE — NIGHT

Rachel looks at the timer. Ten seconds left.

But it’s not until P. 94 – after the Joker emerges holding Stephens hostage, after the Joker dials his phone call, after the Fat Thug explodes, and after Batman arrives to find Dent that those 10 seconds officially elapse and the detonation occurs where Rachel is being held.

What do you think of this sequence? And what are your favorite scenes in The Dark Knight?

Scene Description Spotlight: “Cast Away”

August 27th, 2013 by

The screenplay for the 2000 movie Cast Away was written by William Broyles Jr. One of the big challenges he faced once the story transitioned to the island was creating a specific sense of place, not only the actual topography, but its atmosphere. Here are some scenes just after Chuck has crash landed and is now taking stock of the island:

Chuck emerges onto a ridge that leads to a summit.  He climbs
across a rocky lava field covered with scrub lichen and low
ferns, soil dark as coffee beans, his way crossed by steep
gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava.

The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea.  He
passes a series of CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious
and scary. He gives them a wide berth.

EXT.  ISLAND - CLIFF - MOMENTS LATER

The land narrows to a ledge that stretches across a high
cliff perched over the ocean.  Beyond this rock bridge the
path smoothes out to a summit.

Chuck stares at the narrow bridge, then down at the waves
breaking on the rocks far below.  To get any view, he will
have to cross the bridge.  He's thirsty.  The late afternoon
sun is hot.

                     CHUCK
          Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did
          you enjoy the play?

Hugging the wall of the cliff, taking each step with great
caution, he sets out across the bridge.

EXT.  ISLAND - CLIFF

Step by step, Chuck negotiates the narrow bridge.  He reaches
a flume of polished basalt which cuts across the ledge like a
slide in a water park -- except this flume ends high above
the waves.  Chuck tries to step across it, can't quite, tries
one foot first, then the other.

                     CHUCK
          Shit!

He looks back, but that seems even scarier.

                     CHUCK
          Got to get there.  Got to see.  C'mon...
          c'mon.  Don't be such a wuss.  Be bold.

He looks down at the ocean beneath him, closes his eyes, and
jumps.  It's only a few feet, but he's breathing hard when he
lands on the other side.  He hugs the rocks, getting his
breath.

EXT.  ISLAND SUMMIT - SUNSET - MOMENTS LATER

Chuck looks to each point on the compass.  He is on an
ISLAND, small, inhospitable, without sign of habitation or
anything human.  On three sides the waves break against
steep, hostile cliffs.  A reef encloses the cove where he
came from.

                     CHUCK
          No way on.  No way off.

Chuck stares out to sea in every direction.  Nothing.

                     CHUCK
          This is bad.  Really, really bad.

The last rays of sun hit his face.  The ocean turns a deep
reddish gold.

EXT.  CLIFF - MOMENTS LATER

Going down is even scarier.  It's dusk and the light is flat
and gray.  Chuck stares at the ledge.

                     CHUCK
          Come on.  Crawl if you have to.

Chuck crawls on his hands and knees across the rock bridge.

EXT.  ROCKY SLOPE - MOMENTS LATER

Chuck stumbles over the rocks.  The caves look ominous and
primal.

EXT.  EDGE OF JUNGLE - NIGHT

It's getting dark now.  The jungle seems impenetrable, the
dark wood of fable.  Chuck hesitates, then plunges into it.

EXT.  JUNGLE - NIGHT MINUTES LATER

The moon has just begun to rise, casting eerie light into the
jungle.  The shadows reach out to grab Chuck, then real
branches and vines tug at him.  He heads into thick
blackness.

Notice these lines:

* his way crossed by steep gullies that cut like dark fingers into the lava

* The lava field narrows, forcing Chuck closer to the sea

* CAVES, their mouths dark and mysterious and scary

* Chuck negotiates the narrow bridge

* polished basalt which cuts across the ledge

* an ISLAND, small, inhospitable, without sign of habitation or anything human

* waves break against steep, hostile cliffs

* The caves look ominous and primal

* The jungle seems impenetrable, the dark wood of fable

All wrapped up by this paragraph:

The moon has just begun to rise, casting eerie light into the
jungle.  The shadows reach out to grab Chuck, then real
branches and vines tug at him.  He heads into thick
blackness.

Notice those descriptors, cumulatively creating a foreboding sense of danger. It’s what I call psychological writing in this case projecting Chuck’s feelings onto the physical surroundings. Much more effective writing than mere scene description.

Takeaway: Use psychological writing in your scene description.

[Originally posted March 24, 2012]

Scene Description Spotlight: “(500) Days of Summer”

August 26th, 2013 by

One of the best moments in the delightful film (500) Days of Summer is the morning-after-having-sex-with-Summer-big-dance-bit. Here’s a plot summary:

He’s Tom, from New Jersey, working in L.A. writing greeting cards even through he’s an architect by training. She’s Summer, in from Michigan. Day one is her first day as an AA in Tom’s office. We jump back and forth in time: by day 67, they’ve become an item when she decides to put aside the lovemaking and just be friends. Tom, a romantic who’s sure Summer is the one for him, wallows in self pity. We go back to the early days and see the relationship begin. Summer tells him right away that she doesn’t believe in love. He mopes well past day 100. Then, as day 500 approaches, they find themselves at a wedding together. Does the old flame rekindle? Is Tom right that destiny controls love?

Here’s that scene:

Here is the scene as written in the script with a lead-in from the night before:

INT TOM'S BEDROOM - SAME

We watch from  behind as he re-enters his bedroom.  Where
Summer waits.  Under the covers.  Naked.

                    SUMMER
          Hi.

                    TOM
          Oh, sweet Jesus!

FADE UP: "YOU MAKE MY DREAMS COME TRUE" by Hall and Oates.

CUT TO:

EXT DOWNTOWN STREET -- MORNING

It's the greatest morning of all time!

Tom walks down the street.  Or, more accurately, Tom struts
down the street.  People wave as he passes by, they clap, they
give him thumbs up.  Tom points at people as he passes,
winking, doing a little shuffle.  He is the man.  He checke out
his reflection in a window.  A YOUNG PAUL NEWMAN stares back.

A GROUP of BUSINESSMEN break into a Busby Berkeley-style
choreographed dance.  A whole parade is forming behind Tom.
The POSTMAN, a POLICE OFFICER, the HOT DOG VENDOR, the
MICHELIN MAN, the SAN DIEGO CHICKEN, everybody loves Tom
today.  HALL and OATES themselves walk with Tom singing the
song.

Cars stop at crosswalks to let Tom go by.  The DRIVERS also
pump their fists in celebration of Tom's achievement last
night.  He walks on, the man.

We notice the sidewalk lights up every time he touches the
pavement like in "Billie Jean".  CARTOON BIRDS fly onto Tom's
shoulder.  He smiles and winks at them.

Tom breaks off from the parade as he approaches his office.

Two things. First, as screenwriters, it’s not our job to choreograph every dance move in a scene like this, but rather set the mood and provide suggestions. Paul Newman’s image? Hall and Oates appear on screen? Sure, why not? It contributes to the fun of the scene and the script read. But once production begins, there are actual people — the director, choreographer, etc — who will handle the specifics of said scene.

Second, this may seem like merely a fun scene. Yes, it is fun. But it actually underscores something important in terms of story: Tom is a total romantic. So when he consummates his relationship with Summer, it follows logically — per his romanticism — that he would have a fantastical scene like this in which the whole world acknowledges… not once, but twice… that he is “the man.”

[Originally posted April 14, 2012]

Scene Description Spotlight: “Lethal Weapon”

August 23rd, 2013 by

There have been many forces of nature impacting screenplay style over the years, but there are only a very few actual screenwriters to whom we can point as having a singular influence on the narrative form. Shane Black is one of them. Back in the late 80s and early 90s when Black was selling spec scripts like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boyscout for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, he spawned a zillion copycats. None as good as him of course, but no matter. Hollywood was flooded with scene description that attempted to ape Black’s distinctive narrative voice.

Here is an example of Black’s approach to scene description, the opening scene from the script Lethal Weapon:

           FADE IN:

           CITY OF ANGELS

           lies spread out beneath us in all its  splendor, like a 
           bargain basement Promised Land. 

           CAMERA SOARS, DIPS, WINDS its way SLOWLY  DOWN,  DOWN, 
           bringing us IN OVER the city as we:

           SUPER MAIN TITLES.

           TITLES END, as we -- 

           SPIRAL DOWN TOWARD a lush, high-rise apartment complex. The 
           moon reflected in glass. 

           CAMERA CONTINUES TO MOVE IN THROUGH billowing curtains, 
           INTO the inner sanctum of a penthouse apartment, and here, 
           boys and girls, is where we lose our breath, because -- 

           spread-eagled on a sumptuous designer sofa lies the single 
           most beautiful GIRL in the city. 
           Blonde hair. A satin nightgown that positively glows. 
           Sam Cooke MUSIC, crooning from five hundred dollar 
           SPEAKERS.

           PASTEL colors. Window  walls. New wave furniture tortured 
           into weird shapes. It looks like robots live here. 

           On the table next to the sleeping Venus lies an open 
           bottle of pills ... next to that, a mirror dusted with 
           cocaine. 

           She rouses herself to smear some powder on her gums. 
           As she does, we see from her eyes that she is thoroughly, 
           completely whacked out of her mind... 

           She stands, stumbles across the room, pausing to glance 
           at a photograph on the wall: 

           Two men. Soldiers. Young, rough-hewn, arms around each 
           other. 

           The Girl throws open the glass doors ... steps out onto a 
           balcony, and there, beneath her, lies  all of nighttime 
           L.A. Panoramic splendor. Her hair flies, her expression. 
           Rapt, as she stands against this sea of technology. She 
           is beautiful. 

           On the balcony railing beside her stand three potted 
           plants. 

           The Girl sees them, picks one up. Looks over the balcony 
           railing ... It is ten stories down to the parking lot. 
           She squints, holds the plant over the edge.

                               GIRL
                     Red car.

           Drops the plant. Down it goes, spiralling end over end -- 
           until, finally ... BAM --  ! SHATTERS. Dirt flies. A 
           red Chevy is now minus a WINDSHIELD. The Girl takes 
           another plant.

                               GIRL
                     Green car.

           She drops it. Green Dodge. Ten stories below, BAM 
           Impact city. Scratch one paint job. Grabs the final 
           plant and holds it out, saying:

                               GIRL
                     Blue car.

           POW. GLASS SHATTERS.  Dirt sprays. A blue BMW this 
           time. The Girl loves this game ... her expression is 
           slightly crazed.  She reaches for another plant -- 
           There aren't any. Her smile fades -- And for a moment, 
           just a moment, the dullness leaves her eyes and she is 
           suddenly, incredibly sober. And tears fill her eyes as 
           she looks over the edge --

                               GIRL
                     Yellow car.

           And jumps the railing. Plummets, head over heels like a 
           rag doll. Hits the yellow car spot on. She lies, dead, 
           like an extinguished dream. Still beautiful.

There are many components of the narrative voice at work in this scene and throughout Black’s scripts, a combination of editorializing on the moment [e.g., “completely whacked out of her mind… The Girl loves this game] to similes [e.g., like a bargain basement Promised Land… like a rag doll… like an extinguished dream] to staccato imagery [e.g., “PASTEL colors. Window walls. New wave furniture tortured into weird shapes”]. And yes, breaking the 4th wall: “…and here, boys and girls, is where we lose our breath.”

Bottom line, Shane Black has a distinctive narrative voice. And if there’s one aspect that is perhaps its greatest value, it’s that his scripts feel like a good yarn being told by an entertaining insider, at times a world-weary, even cynical soul, but one engrossed by the goings-on and always a healthy dose of humor.

Nowadays when I read a current action script that has sold as a spec, almost invariably there is an echo of Shane Black and the Pad O’ Guys in them, a similar approach to scene description and narrative voice.

Every script has a narrative voice, either a good one, where the writer is aware that style must match up with genre, or a ineffectual one, where the writer either is unaware of this invisible character in their story or they do a poor job articulating it.

You don’t have to sound like Shane Black, in fact I’m sure even he would encourage you not to emulate his distinctive voice. But whenever you read a script by a professional screenwriter, study their scene description with an eye toward that story’s narrative voice. Then when you write your own scripts, bring a heightened awareness to the attitude you take in telling the story and the style with which you do it.

[Originally posted January 5, 2012]

Scene Description Spotlight: “Raging Bull”

August 22nd, 2013 by

Sports movie are tough to write for many reasons. Here’s one of them: How to describe athletic action without being too specific and ‘stagey’ or too generic and inauthentic. A screenplay that does a great job on this front is Raging Bull (1980). Adapted by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin from a book by Jake LaMotta with Joseph Carter & Peter Savage, there are well over a dozen boxing matches featured in the movie. How to handle all that action?

Early on, the script establishes a spirited but graphic approach to scene description as here in the story’s first fight:

	
        The bell sounds for the tenth. JAKE pulls himself up and
	charges at REEVES.

	REEVES slides away, jabbing, punching, piling up points.

	In JAKE's corner, JOEY stands and yells at JAKE:

	               JOEY
	     A grand apiece! We got a grand
	     apiece on this, Jake! A fucking
	     grand!

	JAKE suddenly corners REEVES and unleashes a desperate, wild
	alley-fighting attack. One ferocious punch after another.

	The SPECTATORS go wild; everyone's up for the kill.

	REEVES staggers, then falls to the canvas.

Strong descriptors to convey the action and mood: charges, jabbing, punching, corners, unleashes, wild alley-fighting attack, ferocious punch, staggers, falls. If you read just those words, you get a sense of what’s happening in the scene.

In a later scene, the script balances the action in and out of the ring:

	INT. MADISON SQUARE GARDEN - NIGHT (NOV. 14, 1947)

	The old Garden is packed. The EX-CHAMPS, the PRESS, the
	OFFICIALS, the MOB GUYS, the FANS -- they're all here.

	The FIGHTERS are announced. BILLY FOX and JAKE touch gloves
	and return to their corners.

	FOX is taller and has a longer reach than JAKE.

	The bell sounds and the FIGHTERS come out. FOX goes to the
	head; JAKE goes to the body.

	FOX lands a solid blow to JAKE's jaw, but LAMOTTA is unfazed.
	FOX is surprised. In the past, his opponents have gone down
	when he connected.

	In the audience, COMO, SALVY, and some other BOYS watch with
	interest.

	JAKE moves in with a rapid series of trademark body blows.
	All of a sudden, FOX is wobbly. JAKE goes for the head, then
	cuts his punch short. FOX is about to go down.

	JAKE throws his arms around FOX to make sure he doesn't fall.

	                JAKE
	           (to Fox)
	      Stand up! What the fuck are you
	      doin'?

	The REFEREE breaks them apart and FOX remounts his attack.
	JAKE bicycles into a corner and lets FOX work him over.

	FOX connects: once, twice, three times. JAKE barely defends
	himself -- but he doesn't go down either.

	The CROWD starts to smell a fix. There are calls from the
	AUDIENCE.

	                CROWD
	      Got your swimming trunks on, Jake?
	      I hope they're paying you enough.
	      Fake, fake.

	                                    TIME CUT:

	JAKE's corner. JAKE is acting stunned. TONY, not aware of
	what's going on, is slapping JAKE.

	                TONY
	      What's the matter with you? What's
	      the matter with you?

	                                    TIME CUT:

	The sign reads "Round Four." JAKE is in the center of the
	ring taking a relentless pasting from FOX. JAKE's arms hang
	at waist level... FOX lands one blow after another. The stink
	of a fix permeates the arena.

	JAKE is furious that FOX can't deck him. He curses through
	his mouthpiece (as he absorbs blow after blow):

	                JAKE
	      Hit me! Hit me! What's the matter
	      with you, you motherfucker? Hit me!

	Boos and catcalls echo through the Garden. This is not even a
	fight. The REFEREE, realizing this, steps in between FOX and
	LAMOTTA, waves his arms and signals that FOX is the winner by
	a technical knockout.

	As he does, JAKE spits his mouthpiece in disgust at FOX and
	struts back to his corner.

	JAKE, JOEY, and TONY are already on their way out of the
	arena as the REFEREE declares FOX the winner.

	COMO and the OTHERS, satisfied, get up to leave.

A lot of great imagery, but if you’ve got a killer visual up your sleeve, save it for the end of the scene: As he does, JAKE spits his mouthpiece in disgust at FOX and struts back to his corner. What a fantastic and symbolic gesture to sum up the tawdry business of the fixed fight.

The use of TIME CUT as a transition brings up another issue that always arises in sports movies: It’s impossible to visualize an entire game, fight, match, etc, so how to handle the inevitable time ellipses? Check out how the screenwriters handle the 3rd fight between LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson:

	INT. OLYMPIC STADIUM - DETROIT (FEB. 26, 1943)

	This is JAKE's rematch with SUGAR RAY (their 3rd fight). AN
	ANNOUNCER's VOICE gives a blow by blow description.

	THE FOURTH ROUND: JAKE is in serious trouble. SUGAR RAY
	knocks him with a hard right, then a series of rights and
	lefts. JAKE is punched all the way across the ring, but stays
	in there.

	THE SEVENTH ROUND: JAKE, coming on strong, forces SUGAR RAY
	into his own corner, then lands a left hook to his chin.
	SUGAR RAY drops, and takes a nine count. This time, however,
	the blow does not have a crippling effect on SUGAR RAY;
	instead, he comes back and outboxes JAKE.

	TIME CUT: THE ANNOUNCER calls out the decision: SUGAR RAY is
	the winner. JAKE is stunned. The CROWD boos so loud and for
	so long that THE ANNOUNCER is unable to introduce the
	fighters in the next bout.

A primary slugline establishes the location and start of the scene, then underneath that — THE FOURTH ROUND, THE SEVENTH ROUND, TIME CUT. These are not secondary slugs, but rather literally what could be called ‘time frames,’ indicating a jump in time within the context of the scene and its primary location. The way I would have typically approached it would be to frame it this way:

SERIES OF SHOTS -- THE FIGHT

-- THE FOURTH ROUND: [SD]

-- THE SEVENTH ROUND: [SD]

--THE DECISION: [SD]

But I think I prefer the approach that Schrader and Martin used.

How about you?

Here is a taste of what director Martin Scorcese did with the script:

[Originally posted January 14, 2010]

Scene Description Spotlight: “Basic Instinct”

August 21st, 2013 by

Let’s say you’re writing a sexy thriller. Per the concept of narrative voice, you should write scene description that is… well… sexy and thrilling. This approach paid off handsomely for screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who in 1992 wrote a spec script called “Basic Instinct” that sold for $3M, the highest amount paid for a spec script up to that time. Here is P. 1 of that script — all of it scene description:

INT. A BEDROOM - NIGHT

It is dark; we don't see clearly. 

A man and woman make love on a brass bed. There are 
mirrors on the walls and ceiling. On a side table, atop 
a small mirror, lines of cocaine. A  tape deck PLAYS the 
Stones "Sympathy for the Devil."

Atop him... she straddles his chest... her breasts in his 
face. He cups her breasts. She leans down, kisses him...

JOHNNY BOZ is in his late 40's, slim, good-looking. We don't 
see the woman's face. She has long blonde hair. The CAMERA 
STAYS BEHIND and to the side of them.

She leans close over his face, her tongue in his mouth... she 
kisses him... she moves her hands up, holds both of his arms 
above his head.

She moves higher atop him... she reaches to the side of the 
bed... a white silk scarf is in her hand... her hips above his 
face now, moving... slightly, oh-so slightly... his face strains 
towards her.

The scarf in her hand... she ties his hands with it... 
gently... to the brass bed... his eyes are closed... tighter... 
lowering hips into his face... lower... over his chest... his 
navel. The SONG plays.

He is inside her... his head arches back... his throat white.

She arches her back... her hips grind... her breasts are high...

Her back arches back... back... her head tilts back... she 
extends her arms... the right arm comes down suddenly... the 
steel flashes... his throat is white...

He bucks, writhes, bucks, convulses...

It flashes up... it flashes down... and up... and down... and 
up... and...

EXT. A BROWNSTONE IN PACIFIC HEIGHTS - MORNING

Winter in San Francisco cold, foggy. Cop cars everywhere. 
The lights play through the thick fog. Two Homicide detectives 
get out of the car, walk into the house.

One could argue that it’s almost soft porn. But one damn thing is for sure: it’s effective writing. In a mere 301 words, the reader is already hooked and into the plot. You’ve got sex. You’ve got murder. One page and the reader gets the movie right away: sexy thriller.

This is yet another example of why it’s so important to understand the concept of Narrative Voice. The attitude you take to writing your scene description should reflect the ‘voice’ of your story’s invisible narrator, and that style needs to underscore the genre you’re writing.

By the way, the movie Basic Instinct went on to gross $350M worldwide.

[Originally posted May 11, 2010]

Scene Description Spotlight: “There’s Something About Mary”

August 20th, 2013 by

There are many funny scenes in the Farrelly brothers’ movie There’s Something About Mary, but the “franks or beans” scene is right up there as one of the most memorable:

INT. BATHROOM - TWILIGHT

Ted dabs his head with a tissue, then moves to the toilet. As he
TAKES A LEAK he glances out the window to his left.

TED'S POV - two LOVEBIRDS are perched on a branch.

Ted smiles...

...at the SOUND of these beautiful tweeties singing their love
song for themselves, for the spring, for Ted and Mary, and
suddenly they fly away and we...

SNAP FOCUS

...to reveal Mary in the bedroom window DIRECTLY BEHIND WHERE THE
BIRDS WERE, in just a bra and panties, and just then her mother
glances Ted's way and MAKES EYE-CONTACT with what she can only
presume to be a leering Peeping Tom.

ON TED...

...he loses the smile and ducks his head back into the bathroom,
HORRIFIED.

PANICKING NOW, he hastily zips up his fly and

TED
YEEEOOOOOWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!

TED GETS HIS DICK STUCK IN THE ZIPPER!

CUT TO:

EXT. BATHROOM DOOR - NIGHT

A concerned Mary, her Mom, Dad, and Warren are huddled outside the
bathroom.

MARY
(knocking gently)
Ted, are you okay?

TED (O.S.)
(pained)
Just a minute.

MARY'S MOM
He's been in there over half an hour.
(whispering)
Charlie, I think he's masturbating.

MARY
Mom!

MARY'S MOM
Well he was watching you undress with a
silly grin on his face.

TED (O.S.)
(pained)
I was watching the birds!

They all look at one another.

MARY'S MOM
Charlie, do something.

MARY'S DAD
All right, kid, that's it, I'm coming in.

INT. BATHROOM - CONTINUOUS

A whimpering Ted huddles in the corner as Mary's Dad enters.

MARY'S DAD (cont'd)
What seems to be the situation here? You
shit yourself or something?

TED
I wish.

Ted motions for him to close the door and Mary's Dad obliges.

TED (cont'd)
I, uh...I got it stuck.

MARY'S DAD
You got what stuck?

TED
It.

MARY'S DAD
It?
(beat)
Oh it. All right, these things happen,
let me have a look. It's not the end of the
world.

Mary's Dad moves closer and puts his reading glasses on.

EXT. BATHROOM DOOR - CONTINUOUS

As Mary, her Mom, and Warren listen in...

MARY'S DAD (O.S.)
OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!

TED (O.S.)
Shhhhhh!

INT. BATHROOM - CONTINUOUS

MARY'S DAD
(CALLS OUT)
Shirley, get in here! You gotta see this!

TED
What?! No please, sir--

MARY'S DAD
She's a dental hygienist. She'll know what
to do.

Mary's Mom comes in and closes the door behind her.

MARY'S MOM
Teddy, hon, are you okay?
(moving closer, seeing the situation)
OH HEAVENS TO PETE!

TED
Would you shhh! Mary's gonna hear us.

MARY'S MOM
Just relax, dear. Now, um...what exactly
are we looking at here?

TED
(dizzy)
What do you mean?

MARY'S MOM
(delicate)
I mean is it...is it...?

MARY'S DAD
(gruff)
Is it the frank or the beans?

TED
I think a little of both.

Suddenly we hear Warren from outside the door:

WARREN (O.S.)
Franks and beans!

Ted hangs his head.

EXT. BATHROOM DOOR - CONTINUOUS

Mary and Warren are huddled outside the door.

MARY
(to Warren)
Shhhh.

MARY'S DAD (O.S.)
What the hell's that bubble?

Mary REACTS to this.

INT. BATHROOM - CONTINUOUS

TED
One guess.

MARY'S DAD
How the hell'd you get the beans all the
way up top like that?

TED
I don't know. It's not like it was a well
thought-out plan.

MARY'S MOM
Oh my, there sure is a lot of skin coming
through there.

MARY'S DAD
I'm guessing that's what the soprano shriek
was about, pumpkin.

MARY'S MOM
I'm going to get some Bactine.

TED
No, please!

Suddenly a POLICE OFFICER sticks his head in the bathroom window.

POLICE OFFICER
Ho there.

TED
(humiliated)
Oh God.

POLICE OFFICER
Everything okay here? Neighbors said they
heard a lady scream.

MARY'S DAD
You're looking at him. C'mere and take a
look at this beauty.

TED
No, that's really unneces--

But the Officer's already climbing in the window. Once inside, he
turns his flashlight on Ted and WHISTLES.

POLICE OFFICER
Now I've seen it all. What the hell were
you thinking?

TED
(frustrated)
I wasn't trying--

POLICE OFFICER
Is that bubble what I think it is?

Mary's parents nod.

POLICE OFFICER (cont'd)
But...how...how'd you get the zipper all
the way to the top?

MARY'S DAD
Let's just say the kid's limber.

The Officer makes a face, then rolls up his sleeves.

POLICE OFFICER
Well, there's only one thing to do.

TED
No, no, no, I'll be fine. I'll just hang my
shirttail out and work on it in the
morning.

POLICE OFFICER
Look, son, this'll only hurt for a second.

The Officer reaches down and takes hold of the zipper.

TED
No, no, please!

MARY'S MOM
Teddy, be brave.

WARREN (O.S.)
Beans and franks!

MARY (O.S.)
Warren, shhh.

Defeated, Ted holds his breath and braces for the worst.

POLICE OFFICER
It's just like pulling off a Band-aid.
A-one and a-two and...

CUT TO:

PARAMEDIC
We got a bleeder!

EXT. MARY'S HOUSE - NIGHT

TWO PARAMEDICS rush Ted out the front door on a stretcher. Mary
runs alongside him holding a towel on his crotch. while a THIRD
PARAMEDIC dabs at his crotch with a towel. Mary's Mom and Dad are
out front along with two FIRETRUCKS, four POLICE CARS, and a crowd
of about thirty NEIGHBORS.

PARAMEDIC
(to Mary)
Keep pressure on it!

Mary does as she's told.

MARY
(running along)
Ted, I'm so sorry. Are you going to be
okay?

TED
(irrational cockiness)
You betcha!

He gives her two thumbs up as they slide him into the ambulance.

INT. AMBULANCE - CONTINUOUS

The doors SLAM shut and as the ambulance pulls away Ted starts to
WHIMPER and we can see Mary fade into the night, as we

DISSOLVE TO:

In classic comedy fashion, the scene builds the humor step by step. After Ted’s unfortunate zipper-job, first Mary’s Dad enters the bathroom to check out Ted’s groin area, then Mary’s Mom, then a totally random Police Officer sticks his head in through the window, all accompanied by Mary’s brother Warren excitedly exclaiming, “Beans and franks,” and finally culminating in poor Ted being carried away in an ambulance.

But the scene wouldn’t work without a great set-up and that’s the focus of today’s scene description spotlight. The Farrelly brothers use primary and secondary slugs to ‘direct’ the action with these five shots:

-- INT. BATHROOM - TWILIGHT: Establishes the location.

-- TED'S POV: Ted looking at two LOVEBIRDS.

-- SNAP FOCUS: Mary in the bedroom window, Ted sees her, Ted's mother sees him.

-- ON TED: Ted ducks into the bathroom horrified at being perceived as a peeping Tom.

-- TED GETS HIS DICK STUCK IN THE ZIPPER!

The more common screenplay style today is not to use directing lingo, so if you were writing the scene now, you might do it like this:

INT. BATHROOM - TWILIGHT

Ted dabs his head with a tissue, then moves to the toilet. As he
TAKES A LEAK he glances out the window to his left and sees --

TWO LOVEBIRDS

perched on a branch.

TED SMILES

at the SOUND of these beautiful tweeties singing their love
song for themselves, for the spring, for Ted and Mary, and
suddenly they fly away revealing --

MARY IN THE BEDROOM WINDOW

directly behind where the birds were, in just a bra and panties,
and just then her mother glances Ted's way and MAKES EYE-CONTACT
with what she can only presume to be a leering Peeping Tom.

TED LOSES HIS SMILE

and ducks his head back into the bathroom, HORRIFIED.

PANICKING NOW, he hastily zips up his fly and --

TED
YEEEOOOOOWWWWWW!!!!!!!!!!

TED GETS HIS DICK STUCK IN THE ZIPPER!

This approach uses secondary slugs / shots to ‘direct’ the action without using directing lingo. Here is part of the scene as filmed:

[Originally posted February 25, 2010]

Scene Description Spotlight: “Inglourious Basterds”

August 19th, 2013 by

Today let’s consider the narrative voice of a drama: Inglourious Basterds, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

This excerpt comes at the end of the opening sequence where German Colonel Landa has calmly and coolly scared the crap out of French farmer Perrier, who as the pair have been having their ‘cordial’ conversation knows he’s standing directly above the Dreyfus family, Jews hidden beneath the farm house floor. Note: All misspellings are present in the actual script.

The Farmer, pipe in mouth, stares across the table at his German opponent. COL LANDA You are sheltering enemies of the state, are you not? PERRIER Yes. COL LANDA Your sheltering them underneath your floorboards aren't you? PERRIER Yes. COL LANDA Point out to me the area's where their hiding. The Farmer points out the area's on the floor with the Dreyfusis are underneath. COL LANDA Since I haven't heard any disturbance, I assume that while their listening, they don't speak english? PERRIER Yes. COL LANDA I'm going to switch back to french now, and I want you to follow my masquerade - is that clear? PERRIER Yes. Colonel Landa stands up from the table, and switching to FRENCH says SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH: COL LANDA Monsiuer LaPadite, I thank you for your milk, and your hospitality. I do believe our business here is done. The Nazi Officer opens the front door, and silently motions for his men to approach the house. COL LANDA Mademoiselle LaPadite, I thank you for your time, we shant be bothering your family any longer. Yet the LaPadite women watch the Nazi soldiers, machine guns at ready, approach the house. The Soldiers enter the doorway, Col Landa, silently points out area of the floor the jews are hiding under. COL LANDA So, Monsieur and Madam LaPadite I bid you adieu. He motions to the Soldiers with his index finger. They TEAR UP the wood floor with MACHINE GUN FIRE. The little farm house is filled with SMOKE, DUST, SPLINTERS, SCREAMS, BULLET CASINGS, and even alittle BLOOD. With a hand motion from the Colonel, the Soldiers cut off their gunfire. The Colonel keeps his finger in the air to indicate silence. UNDERNEATH THE FLOORBOARDS The entire Dreyfus family lay dead. Except for sixteen year old SHOSANNA, who miraculously escaped being struck by the nazi's bullets. With her dead family surrounding her, the young girl goes for freedom (represented by wire mesh vent). COL LANDA hears movement underneath the floor, looks down and see's a SHAPE moving forward between the planks in the floor. COL LANDA It's the girl. Nobody move! VENT is KICKED OPEN, the girl SPRINGS out. COL LANDA as he crosses the floor, he see's the young girl RUNNING towards the cover of the woods. He unlatches the window, and opens it. Shoshanna is perfectly FRAMED in the window sill. SHOSANNA RUNNING towards woods. Farm house and Col in the window in B.G. FILTHY BAREFEET SLAPPING against wet grass. CU SHOSANNA'S FACE same as a animal being chased by a predator FLIGHT - PANIC - FEAR SHOSANNA'S POV the safety of tree's, getting closer. COL LANDA Framed by the window, takes his LUGAR, and straight arm aims at the fleeing Jew, cocking back the hammer with his thumb. COL LANDA POV of the fleeing Shosanna. CU COL LANDA SLOW ZOOM into his eyes as he aims. PROFILE CU SHOSANNA mad dash for life. COL LANDA changes his mind. He yells to the rat fleeing the trap, heading for the safety of the wood pile, in FRENCH SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH: COL LANDA Au revoir, Shosanna! Till we meet again! SHOSANNA makes it to the woods, and is gone. The S.S. Colonel closes the window.

In the preceding pages, Tarantino has slowly built the tension as Col Landa winds his way through seemingly casual conversation to zeroing in on the truth – that the Farmer is hiding a Jewish family. In other words, the tone of the scene (and therefore the approach to scene description) is dictated by Col Landa’s character: He goes about his business with an air of dignity and cool, which underscores the cruelty of the moment, rather like a simple business transaction than a decision about the fate of human lives. All of that is reflected in the restrained, almost documentary-style approach to the scene’s initial description:

The Farmer, pipe in mouth, stares across the table at his German opponent.

The Farmer points out the area's on the floor with the Dreyfusis are
underneath.

Colonel Landa stands up from the table, and switching to FRENCH says
SUBTITLED IN ENGLISH:

The Nazi Officer opens the front door, and silently motions for his
men to approach the house.

Four simple lines of scene description which lead the reader to an awful conclusion: The Dreyfus family is as good as dead. And for that moment, Tarantino ramps up the imagery:

He motions to the Soldiers with his index finger.

They TEAR UP the wood floor with MACHINE GUN FIRE.

The little farm house is filled with SMOKE, DUST, SPLINTERS, SCREAMS,
BULLET CASINGS, and even alittle BLOOD.

And then the scene tops itself: Shosanna miraculously survives the fusillade and she tries to escape. Again Tarantino ratchets up the visuals, using a series of secondary slugs to pivot the action from one point of focus to another:

SHOSANNA

FILTHY BAREFEET

CU SHOSANNA'S FACE

SHOSANNA'S POV

COL LANDA

COL LANDA'S POV

CU COL LANDA

PROFILE CU SHOSANNA

COL LANDA

SHOSANNA

And catch the imagery and building drama of the moment in the scene description:

...is KICKED OPEN, the girl SPRINGS out.

...as he crosses the floor, he see's the young girl RUNNING towards the
cover of the woods. He unlatches the window, and opens it. Shoshanna
is perfectly FRAMED in the window sill.

...RUNNING towards woods. Farm house and Col in the window in B.G.

...SLAPPING against wet grass.

...same as a animal being chased by a predator FLIGHT - PANIC - FEAR

...the safety of tree's, getting closer.

...Framed by the window, takes his LUGAR, and straight arm aims at the
fleeing Jew, cocking back the hammer with his thumb.

...of the fleeing Shosanna.

...SLOW ZOOM into his eyes as he aims.

...mad dash for life.

... changes his mind. He yells to the rat fleeing the trap, heading for the
safety of the wood pile...

As I say, pure drama.

Now a few points about style. Observant eyes will notice the use of camera shots (i.e., CU, POV, PROFILE, SLOW ZOOM). And yet haven’t I stated on this very site that there has been a definite shift away from using directing lingo in contemporary screenplays?

Two things. First, remember the distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. This is a shooting script, so it is written with production specifically in mind. A selling script, which is what almost all of us here are concerned with writing is not focused on production, but rather ‘selling’ the story to a reader in the hopes that a script reader will give it good coverage, a producer will think they could set up the script, a studio exec will feel like the script could turn into a hit movie, an actor will fall in love with their character, a director will connect with the material so much they’re willing to commit 12 months of their life to making the film. For a selling script, we’re trying to pull readers into our story and keep them there, not remind them with every CU, SMASH CUT TO, POV, and ANGLE ON that we’re talking about a movie.

Second, this is Quentin Tarantino we’re talking about. He is a writer-director. Therefore he can put down whatever he wants in the script — including specific camera shots — because he’s going to direct it.

So again, do not use camera shots / directing lingo in your scene description.

The final thing is all the misspellings – and there are a ton in this script. I’ve read Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I don’t remember those scripts being strewn with misspellings. So I’m wondering if that is something that Tarantino did intentionally in this script. Hell, he misspells both words in the movie’s title: Inglourious Basterds.

I don’t have time to go back through his other scripts, but if anybody does or has recently, what are your thoughts about the misspellings? Is that a reflection of Tarantino’s spelling acumen (or lack thereof) or is he playing around with that conceit in the script? And if so, why?

[Originally posted December 9, 2009]