Tag Archives: writing

CHINATOWN’s opening scenes… cutting fat…

t doesn’tBeen wanting to do this for a long time.

It’s difficult for beginning writers to understand the value of cutting, much less the value of cutting really good stuff they took the time and trouble to write. The more you see how a scene improves by slicing away fat, the happier you’ll be to pull out your flensing knife.

The first draft of CHINATOWN is different from the one you’ve probably read.

It opens on Hollis Mulwray, Chief Engineer for the Department of Water and Power, driving to the dried up L.A. River.  THAT’s different!  Conversely, the movie opens on a scene between Jake Gittes, the P.I. hero, and client, Curly.  It’s generally a good idea to attach our emotional wagon to the good guy right off the bat…

The movie is all about water, so opening on a dried river and Q & A with a Mexican boy about when the water comes make sense but it doesn’t happen until 40 minutes into the film.  Then Mulwray talks to a character we never meet in the movie, and after that we go to Gittes’ office and meet his associates, Walsh and Duffy.  Still haven’t laid eyes on the hero…!  They chit chat about the client in Jake’s office, a tuna boat skipper.  They’re telling us what, later, the film shows us.

At last, at the top of page 5, we meet our hero in the familiar what-is-now-the-opening scene, with the photos of Curly’s wife breaking her marriage vows while picnicking.

Curly says he wants to kill his wife, which Jake understands but he rants about “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it.”  A powerful theme that echoes through the whole movie, only it gets cut.

Another interesting thing about CHINATOWN #1 is that the interview with the new client, Mrs. Mulwray, is between her and Walsh and Duffy, not with Jake like in the rewrite.  Give the good stuff to your hero or die trying!  In #1, Walsh and Duffy find out what Jake discovers in the rewrite, and in #1 we never see Jake in the room with her.

Check out how much time is taken up with Curly in #1, and how brief the scene actually is when you get to film.  27 sides of dialogue in #1 vs. 11 in the film!  The “you gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it” dialogue is still there in the rewritten script, but not in the movie.

In the rewrite, when Jake says, “Now — what makes you certain that your husband is involved with someone?” she says, “A wife can tell.”  In the first draft she said, “A wife can tell.  I mean I followed him.”  The second line is about her, not Jake.  It doesn’t affect the story at all.  It makes us think about something that isn’t the main railroad track of the tale, Jake’s problem, so it got cut.  A perfectly lovely line, but when it went away, who cared?  Nobody.  The beginning writer would have kept it in.

Finally, the Curly / Mrs. Mulwray scenes are intercut (a lot) in script #1, only once in the rewrite, and none at all in the film.

The reason to take heart from all this fat flensing is that Robert Towne was already one of the finest writers in the business, yet he had a long way to go from Draft #1 to the script they shot.  The best writers in the game make plenty of mistakes… they just don’t leave them in there.

That said, here are the first scenes in CHINATOWN #1 and the same scenes in the rewrite, with the changes marked for your edification…

CHINATOWN 1st two scenes First Draft and Last Draft

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Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Walking and Talking and Writing, part deux

Just got off the treadmill.

A sweaty mess. But tolerable since I’m writing. “Writing” keeps my mind off how much I hate exercising.

Walked for 30 minutes. Talked into the audio recorder nearly the whole time.

Extracted about 23 minutes of notes out of that walk. Working on a new filmmaking book, a subject I know well. Easier than a novel, so the word count is higher than if I were doing hard core character and plot.

That hike translated to 3.25 pages or 1,800 words. By the end of the summer, I’ll have a first draft.

In theory.

But, it makes me hate getting on the treadmill just a tiny bit less, knowing I’m actually accomplishing something.

If anyone out there walks and talks and writes, I’m curious to hear how it works for you…

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Nice use of adverbs.

Most writers, from Stephen King to Elmore Leonard to me, disdain adverbs. Rightfully so. They’re pretty useless.
But not all the time. Not always. Not every SINGLE time.

Every now and then, you need them.

This by my son:

“It’s a return to form after his last novel, the dismally awful _________.”

Hunter S. Thompson is my adverb hero.
Thirty-five years after reading it, I’ve never forgotten “unnaturally massive bill.”

The Great Shark Hunt

At this stage of the gig, things like mosquitoes and sand fleas are the least of our worries. . . because in about two hours and 22 minutes I have to get out of this hotel without paying an unnaturally massive bill, drive about three miles down the coast in a rented VW Safari that can’t be paid for, either, and which may not even make it into town, due to serious mechanical problems — and then get my technical advisor Yail Bloor out of the Mesón San Miguel without paying his bill, either, and then drive us both out to the airport in that goddamn junk Safari to catch the 7:50 Aeromexico flight to Mérida and Monterrey, where we’ll change planes for San Antonio and Denver.
So we are looking at a very heavy day. . .

And elsewhere in the same book…

Dr. Squane, the Bends Specialist in Miami, says Thompson is “acceptably rational” — whatever that means — and that they have no reason to keep him in The Chamber beyond Friday. My insistence that he be returned at once to Colorado — under guard if necessary — has not been taken seriously in Miami. The bill for his stay in The Chamber — as you know — is already over $3,000, and they are not anxious to keep him there any longer than absolutely necessary. I got the impression, during my talk with Doc Squane last night, that Thompson’s stay in The Chamber has been distinctly unpleasant for the staff. “I’ll never understand why he didn’t just wither up and die,” Squane told me. “Only a monster could survive that kind of trauma.”

The Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane”

He was a hard-headed man
He was brutally handsome, and she was terminally pretty
She held him up, and he held her for ransom
in the heart of the cold, cold city

1. Daniel goes to the bathroom and washes his hands.
2. Shirtless, Daniel looks at himself in the mirror.
3. A group of kids are playing soccer.
4. Daniel watches the soccer game thoughtfully.

Randall, in his 30’s, is unemployed, living with his parents and absolutely single.

This scene is beautifully awkward.

With those examples in mind, here’s my thought on adverbs: use them only if they REALLY change the meaning of the adjective in a supremely gigantic way (which that one does not, btw).

dismally awful
unnaturally massive
acceptably rational
absolutely necessary
distinctly unpleasant
brutally handsome
terminally pretty
Daniel watches the soccer game thoughtfully.
absolutely single
beautifully awkward

These are marvelous uses of the adverb.
99% of the time you won’t need one.

But, if you’ve got the RIGHT one, use it!

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The “Don’t Repeat” thing is tough to root out.

Just finished giving notes to a client. A client I’ve given notes to twice before. So, they are used to what I hit on pretty hard.

One is proofreading.
I ended up telling her she has to find someone else to proofread her work. If you’re in this same boat, find someone else to proofread your work. If you’re not a good proofreader, you know by now. So don’t think “Hey, I’m magically going to get better at this!” It’s like saying, “Today, I think I’ll be taller.” Get some help if you need it.

Another is “Most important thing, last.”
A general rule, to be sure. But, it behooves you to go through your dialogue line by line and ask, “Hey, is the zinger in the middle or at the end?” Very, very often, it’s lost in the shuffle. A person says three lines in a speech, and the good one is #2. By moving that line to the end, you suddenly create power in the three lines… with the best one last.

Finally, the don’t repeat rule.
You can say the same thing twice in a row and not realize it.
Just like I’m probably going to do now.
You may not notice that one line and the other are pretty much alike.

So, you have to wear your “Am I Repeating?” glasses and check each line of action and each line of dialogue for just that one thing… “Am I somehow saying the same thing twice, by accident?” If you are, get rid of one.

She had an opening title card.
Fine. It set up her story nicely.
It faded out, and a second one came up. In the writer’s mind, it added emphasis. In the reader’s mind, it was overkill.

Saying the same thing twice, even if it’s slightly different (To You!) is not adding new information. It’s just more crap the reader has to plow through to get to the next piece of new information.

If you don’t believe me, make a short film. When you get to the editing room, you’ll cringe at every tiny line that you wish you hadn’t shot that you wish you’d trimmed in the script phase.
Nothing like sweating in an editing room to teach you, once and for all, that stuff that repeats will kill you in front of an audience.

Unless of course, you mean for it to repeat and did it on purpose.

Anybody ever made a film and found this to be true?

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