Happy New Year!
There’s a great excerpt in the Sweet Smell of Success Criterion from the director, Alexander MacKendrick. After MacKendrick left Hollywood, he went into teaching and wrote a book called On Filmmaking. The part that interested me, however, was his description on how Clifford Odets, who came in after the original writer fell ill, worked on revising the script.
In the first story conference between Odets, myself, and the producer, Jim Hill, I presented some of the ideas I had already been working on with Ernest Lehman. I had the idea of beginning the film with a sequence I felt would set the general tone of the film: the frantic activity that surrounds the moment when the first edition of a big city newspaper hits the streets (it was finally used as background for the titles). I explained how I could use posters on the side of the delivery trucks and the masthead of the column itself to set in motion the sequence of scenes that would build slowly to the introduction of the figure of the columnist. I suggested this would be a better start than the [proposed] ambiguous scene of the suicide that introduced voice-over narration and flashback. (Privately, I have a distaste for these two things, both of which are often a sign of the failure to create scenes in which the exposition is presented in terms of present dramatic action.) I had no need to argue the point, for Odets had already been feeling much the same way. Encouraged, I also made the suggestion that we could establish the profession of Sidney (Tony Curtis’s character) visually if we could play a scene not in his home, rather in an office where the set design and incidental activity could show just how a press agent lives. Perhaps, I said, Sidney could actually have a bedroom attached to his office, something that would indicate his association with the newspaper column and the degree to which he was dependent on his job.
Odets again seized on this. Pursuing the same line, he said he had been thinking about the roles of Sidney’s mother and the brother. In Lehman’s early draft, these two characters appeared in the early scenes but were substantially absent thereafter. Useful, of course, as supporting roles to reveal the background of the protagonist, but without much connection with the rest of the action. Possibly, he thought, there were other, more interesting ways to make the same points using characters already established in the script. For example, instead of the character of the mother, Odets proposed that the character of the theatrical agent could be a relative of Sidney’s, his mother’s brother (such a person would have the right to scold Sidney in much the same fashion as the brother and the mother). [In Odets’s script, this is the character of Frank D’Angelo, who represents Steve Dallas.] The idea of the bedroom/office also prompted Odets to suggest that Sidney has a secretary, Sally, who also sleeps with him on occasion, a sad and slightly squalid relationship that was not only rich in its implications of character but that meant scenes now devoted to character exploration could be more explicitly relevant to the plot. (The early scene in Odets’s draft with Sidney and Sally in his office, where he gives a self-justifying speech, is not only an early statement of the story’s theme, thus anticipating situations in the climax of the story, it also gives a depth to Sidney’s character, as it shows us his attitude to his secretary, who he treats with such little respect. Thus the character, theme, and plot are all functioning at once in the scene.)
Clifford promised to work on these ideas. Then he began to focus on the scene he felt needed the most work: the introduction, in the 21 Club, of the figure central to the whole subject, J. J. Hunsecker. Lehman’s original version contained three characters sitting at the newspaper columnist’s table, but very little use was made of them. They were merely extras to the scene, while in Odets’s version, each of the five characters is continuously in play throughout. For purposes of exposition, Odets had considerably expanded their parts, making them foil figures and effectively providing a compact subplot for them. Like Odets, I felt the scene was not really as powerful as it ought to be, but having no positive suggestions, I had made no complaint. Odets proceeded to give us a demonstration of the way a practiced dramaturge, a man with long experience of such difficulties, explores for ideas to solve them.
“I don’t understand!” he declared with force. “This man Hunsecker is a newspaper columnist. I know what that means. What I don’t understand is why everybody seems so terrified of him. Why?” Jim Hill protested to Odets, “Oh, come on, Clifford, he’s not just any columnist. Everybody knows how he behaves.” “No, they don’t,” said Clifford. “Some people might know. Maybe you and I know, but most people have no idea. This is a man who treats one of his associates as if he were dirt. But Sidney just sits there and takes it. Why does he need it? Why doesn’t he just get up and walk away?” Jim protested again: “He can’t walk away. It’s his living.” “How?” asked Clifford. “How? Because a press agent has to get his clients’ names into the paper. That’s what they pay him for. And besides that . . .” Jim, in some exasperation, went on to elaborate on the relationship between Sidney and Hunsecker. While he was doing so, Odets scribbled notes on his memo pad, then switched his attack. “But why is everybody else so much in awe of this creature? He insults everybody, but nobody talks back to him. I just don’t believe in this man.” Once more Hill insisted, “Don’t you understand? This guy Hunsecker is a man who can tell presidents what to do!” Scribbling again, Clifford said more quietly, “Oh, sure. But where does it say that? And even if somebody says it, I don’t believe it. You’ve got to show me.”
During all of this, I made no comment, as I saw Odets’s point clearly. But what had begun to worry me was that, if he was correct (and I felt he was), then there would need to be a lot more expository talk, a lot more of the kind of verbiage I felt was already bogging down the momentum of the story. More exposition, I felt, was bound to weaken the scenes rather than strengthen them. What Clifford had been scribbling down as he talked were Jim Hill’s answers that were later worked into the dialogue of the script. Clifford was actually using Jim as a foil, or rather was playing the role of foil himself so that Jim was provoked into improvising the answers to the questions that had not been properly addressed in the first draft script. As for myself, I was indeed correct in my fear that the 21 Club scene would have to be longer and more elaborate. But Clifford’s skill meant that, as it was transformed from primarily a two-hander into a five-cornered exchange of considerable complexity, the scene became brilliantly tense.
Though I personally was often uneasy about Odets’s dialogue, I had nothing but admiration for his skill in scene construction. His adeptness in this kind of dramatic carpentry was quite extraordinary and is something we can all learn from. As I examined Clifford’s version of the scene, I realized that its strength was in the ensemble structure he had constructed. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that at any given moment each of the five characters present is involved in some way with every one of the other four. There are, in a sense, twenty-five separate interactions.
The whole excerpt is pretty fantastic and I’m definitely going to be picking up his book.
I’m leading off with that bit because it’s the start of the new year(!) and that means staffing season. As such, we’re beating the crap out of our scripts and MacKendrick’s advice came at just the right time for me. We’ve still got a couple of months before staffing season officially begins, but since since this’ll be our first time throwing ourselves into it, it’s called for some research. We’ve asked around for what kind of stuff are people looking for right now, and it sounds like it’s originals over specs. One agent got back to us and said, “”They should have more than one solid piece of material… I say an original pilot is a must — (if they don’t come from a playwrighting background, etc). And also a spec if there is one they can write well.”
We also need an agent, which we’re working on.
Who’s up for some links, eh? John Williams, humblest man in Hollywood, gave a great interview to the WSJ.
If any of you reading this has ever met us, I think it’s fair to say that Nick and I can get pretty enthusiastic. Personally I think genuine enthusiasm is one of our greatest assets, as it can not only have a great influence on the work you do, but also on the people you do it with. That’s why I love this TED talk from Mike Jutan about the power of enthusiasm.
When he wasn’t making movies or spending way too much time on Twitter (which is awesome), Duncan Jones took some time to chat with some young filmmakers over in Melbourne about his process. I especially found it interesting reading Duncan talk about his Draft Zero.
Apart from lists and notes with ideas, his only short document prior to embarking on a full draft is a 20 – 25 page treatment. He works very hard on this treatment – making sure that it determines pacing, structure, plot and tone of the film – and uses it to get feedback from a trusted few before embarking on Draft Zero. For a scifi story, this treatment document also contains a detailed explanation of the available technology and how this technology influences the world the characters inhabit.
From this treatment, it is Draft Zero time. He calls it Draft Zero because, when writing it, he keeps to the treatment even when he identifies problems or things he would like to change. Takes note of them but keeps on writing. Sticking to the treatment. Pinch you nose tightly and type one-handed. Only on the next draft can changes be made. It is that next draft that becomes Draft 1, one that fully expresses his initial concept in a way he is (at the time) satisfied with. It is only at this point that he puts it out for feedback and notes from a trusted few.
I said it in the last post, but I love Film Crit Hulk. A lot. In what is perhaps the best thing to happen yet this year, he’s put out not one, but two Hulk-sized articles on screenwriting. I haven’t gotten the chance to read them yet, but Nick has and he was nodding his head the entire time.
“There are a lot of people, who don’t understand what staging is. It’s the most important thing directors do, and not a lot of people realize that. Not a lot of people know why they like Steven Spielberg. They don’t know the difference between having their eye directed, and having coverage edited for them. But the truth is,” Fincher continues, “film is too expensive to teach. You can’t teach how to make Hollywood movies. What you can do is make people look at the language of cinema. Why do we need a close-up? I got a master, I got an over, I got close-up – what’s the best, what’s the most effective way to move people who are watching it, who don’t know what this person is or don’t know what the circumstances are; how do I engage them? And you can do that anywhere. You don’t have to go to London, you don’t have to go to Pinewood, you don’t have to go to SC. Creativity happens on the fringe. It does. It’s too bad. But you can get there. Start in the fringe, meet those people, write your scripts.
I always wanted to give a lecture at filmschools. You go in and you see all these fresh faces, and you say: ‘You! Stand up, tell me your story. Tell me what your film is going to be about.’ And they start, and you go: ‘Shut up and sit the fuck down!’ And if they do, you go: ‘You’re not ready.’ Because the film business is filled with shut-up and sit-the-fuck-down. You got to be able to tell your story in spite of sit-down and shut-the-fuck-up. If you are going to let something like that derail you, what hope do you have against transportation department? What hope do you have against development executives?”