Sunday, August 30, 2009


What does (BEAT) mean?

Some people will tell you it's a way to get an actor to pause for something important. It tells the actor when to take the breath. It's a dramatic equivalent to OMG!!!!;) Or something.

Others will tell you it simply indicates a pause.

Most writers go through a (BEAT) phase. (BEAT) starts littering the script wherever the writer wants to indicate something significant, or worse -- weighty. And the writer convinces himself that he makes his script weigh more by doing so.

Then there's the added benefit of telling the actors how to act. If you put that (BEAT) in there, well, they need to stop and savor your brilliance.

Not surprisingly, actors bristle at scripts full of (BEAT), just as they do at scripts full of "smiles knowingly", "claps his back reassuringly", or (subtly, with rising anger). Actors are not puppets, and you are not a puppeteer.

And actors usually know what a beat is.

A beat is simply a unit of drama. It's a moment that moves the story forward. It's not a moment that represents something, or elaborates, or even 'weighs' anything. It is movement. It is forward motion.

In virtually every drama virtually all of the time, the beat happens through the actor. How?

They change their intention. They react to a new circumstance. They try to effect a change in another character.

These are all things that happen first in a character's. So what does (BEAT) mean to an actor? It tells her she needs to consider how her intention changes. It tells him that a shift has occurred in his character's psychology.

Sometimes this even happens without a pause for emphasis.

(BEAT) used correctly engages the actor's training. They look for interesting possibilities in the character. They uncover connections that need to be brought out. They consider your lines in a different way. You're telling them to make a choice, a gamble, a deeper read.

And when they read more deeply and just come up with (ponderous pause)? You've bored them or worse -- you've lost their faith in the script.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Set Ups

Have you ever watched a movie without audio -- say, in a bar or on an airplane? If you're paying any attention at all, you usually know exactly what's going on. Screenwriting is, after all, visual storytelling. Our job is to pull together combinations of images and characters as expressively as possible. Usually this is a matter of setting two elements against each other, in a power relationship, or to express a contrast, or simply to create dramatic potential. What does this mean?

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert (James Mason) checks into a hotel with the 16-year-old Lolita (Sue Lyon) unaware that it's almost completely booked with a convention of state troopers. Now, the contrasts and power relationships are painfully clear. But the screenwriter, Vladimir Nabokov, doesn't stop there. To preface the set up we see the inimitable Claire Quilty, a dissolute TV writer who apparently made note of the precocious Lolita while bedding her mother in the backstory, wanders in just in time to watch the whole thing.

Note something important here: the entire import of the scene is in the set up. James Mason could discuss fuzzy bunnies with the front desk clerk. It wouldn't matter. We'd know why the scene was there, and the scene need only prolong itself until old Humbert's committed himself to a night in a hotel full of cops with his 16-year-old paramour, daughter of his recently deceased wife. You come up with a set up like that and you're done. You did your job.

All well and good, you say, but I'm not Vladimir Nabokov. How do I come up with a set up like that? They don't just pop into my head.

No, they don't. As a matter of fact, I'm writing in my blog precisely because I'm stuck trying to think up a strong set up for a scene right now.

Actually, everybody encounters the immovable and intractably dull set up issue on a pretty regular basis. Good writers are just better about working through them.

Let me make a hypothetical here in pursuit of a point. How did Nabokov come up with this set up? Out of necessity.

The second act is largely built on the tension of Lolita not knowing that her mother has committed suicide upon realizing that Humbert's after not her but her daughter. At this stage in the movie Humbert has nowhere to go. He has to stop somewhere, and this hotel is the proper place for the urbane literature professor that he is.

How often do you run into that 'necessary' scene that just lays there? It would be easy enough to write through a little booking-the-room scene then off for some sexual tension that evening in the bedroom. It's necessary, but you don't learn much.

That's not how screenwriting works. Each scene has to build the drama and not just move through the have-to-be-there moments. So, you look at the scene and start to add in the elements you need. To wit: fear of law enforcement? Check. Obsessed and unshakable drunk with an infatuation with the young girl and a fishy story? Check. Desk clerk a little to hep to the jive to not pick up on the sexual energy between Lolita and her supposed father? Check.

Then you subtract all the stuff you thought you needed but has nothing to do with the set up. The exposition. The boilerplate dialogue between desk clerk and guest. That weird thematic stuff that never reads anyway. The clever line that will never sound half as good outside your head (and you know it).

You come up with a strong set up and you're done. Stay out of your own way. Don't overcrowd the scene with dialogue. And whatever you do, don't drive the scene with dialogue. How on earth are people in bars and airplanes supposed to watch the movie if you do?

On a separate note...

Go watch Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. Right now. I'll come to your house if you don't. It's about as good as a movie can be with Charleton Heston and Marlene Dietrich playing Mexicans. And the set ups ain't too shabby either.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quote of the Day

"You can't wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club."

– Jack London

Friday, August 7, 2009

Who Wants Blood?

...and who wants self-actualization?

I recently read David Mamet's Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business. It's a remarkable book. I usually choose not to read books about screenwriting or, for that matter, the movie business. A little Robert McKee or Syd Field goes a long way for me. Then I'm somehow bloated. Never trust a guru. They're smart, sure. But you have to shut a little something off to stay with them.

Bambi vs. Godzilla is different. Mamet is, of course, a first-rate dramatist. And this has driven him to revulsion at the way things work in Hollywood. There's a gem every other page or so. Some of the gems are depressing as hell. But you leave the book a better writer, I think.

Mamet turned me onto a remarkable American noir film from 1967: Point Blank. It stars Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. The tagline is one for the ages:

"There are two kinds of people in his up-tight world: his victims and his women. And sometimes you can't tell them apart." Uh huh.

Mamet points to the film as an example of what's wrong with many mainstream Hollywood thinking about main characters: that they must be likable. After all, the audience essentially engages the main character as his lackey to pull us through the plot, right? So, the audience is happiest when they like the guy up on screen most of the time. Audiences like main characters with pluck (and boobs) and a desire to become better people. Everybody likes that, right?

But drama isn't always so easy on the viewer. This self-actualization that Hollywood wants us to vicariously enjoy while sitting upon our ample asses descends from a much sterner mother: catharsis. Catharsis isn't a pleasant thing to go through. It's ripping away the traits that define you and letting yourself slide to the floor in a jelly, hoping that something new and better will prop you back up.

And that's not the worst of it.

What drives any good drama is the main character's need for something. Think to what you lack. Think to what you can't bear to have the world know you lack. Love. Respect. Family. Something darker, perhaps. That's what drives a drama. It's what you can't mention. Hollywood realized a while back that this isn't quite as safe a model as self-actualization. Nobody's afraid to want that for themselves, at least vicariously through Spiderman.

This, predictably, makes the drama (and the very potential for drama) less.

At the beginning of Point Blank, Lee Marvin loses big. While robbing some gangsters, Marvin's partner steals his wife, his share, then lodges two bullets in him -- all on an abandoned Alcatraz. As his life seeps away, he wants one thing: revenge. And this alone drives him to survive (and swim to San Francisco, apparently).

Now, self-actualization is an easy, calm, soothing kind of master. It has twelve steps. You can take a break. You do your best. There are books to help you. Self-actualization has websites. Revenge? Not so much. It's irrational, unquenchable, and merciless.

Lee Marvin tracks down his wife. As he sits there wordlessly she pours out her confession and he realizes that she wished for the death she thought he had. Unsure whether to kill her or take her back, he loses both options when she does kill herself. He marches on. He tracks down his former partner, who's now bought his way into the mafia. He gets his sister-in-law, Angie Dickinson, to sleep with her dead sister's husband so he can sneak up and kill him. He does kill the partner -- but in about the most unsatisfying way possible: the poor guy falls off the roof trying to get away from Marvin.

At this point you'd think the movie is about done. Everything that was set up has been resolved. But not for Marvin. Where do you put revenge? He was ripped off for $93,000 in the initial heist. He chases and murders his way up through the criminal syndicate to get the money. They're mostly baffled by him. What is he gaining by going after this incredibly powerful organization? Why, for that matter, does he even think they owe him a penny? It's not terribly rational -- but revenge just isn't.

And then at the end Marvin finally gets his money. Or he could. It's offered to him in a pay off back on Alcatraz. But he won't come out of the shadows to take it. He won't take the boat back to San Francisco. Instead, he just recedes into the darkness. End of movie.


NEVER do you 'like' Marvin's character. Sure, he maybe fulfills the old screenwriting bromide: "the audience has to want the main character to succeed'. But that's begging the question. And if you gave him a dog and a sweet, supportive wife, we'd puke.

What makes him work as a character? Put simply: a great dramatic question at every step. What happens next? He's a mystery, a Manichean hodgepodge of good and evil with a not insignificant pinch of crazy thrown in. But he is consistent and coherent, and he never once panders to the audience.

This has the effect of making him human. The final tragedy hits like a ton of bricks.

And while the movie business might have difficulty making money laying that kind of trip on you, it's certainly something the audience can appreciate. And I'd say the writer of drama simply must understand this.