Lynn Shelton does more than keep a secret.

Finally saw writer-director Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister last night. She goes for a story that screenwriters in the independent film market keep trying for and rarely pull off: a three person drama (more or less) set in one location (mostly) with a simple problem (that proves to be not-so-simple). I’m personally envious because I’ve been telling friends for years that we should write stories that take place in vacation houses and resort towns in the off-season, to make it simple getting locations and places to house the cast and crew.

The first act goes something like this: Jack gives an awkward toast that nearly kills a eulogy party for his brother who’s been dead for a year; his friend/dead brother’s ex-girlfriend Iris consoles him and offers her dad’s vacation house on what looks like Orcas Island, for Jack to have some reflection time to get over his moping depression; Jack goes, only to discover that Iris’ lesbian big sister is already using it as a grieving hut to get over her own loss, a break up from a seven year relationship; Jack and Hannah proceed to get hammered on tequila, and do what sad, drunk people do when left alone in the woods, and have lousy sex; the next morning, Iris unexpectedly comes, and Jack and Hannah must hide the fact that they hooked up.

So far so good. The only dull moment is the meeting of the two lovers: he catches a glimpse of her near nakedness, makes a noise and scares her, and provokes a testy exchange that, as the cliché goes, foreshadows their hooking up. It’s the only lazy choice in a gorgeously sleek first act…or is it?

What I love about Shelton’s script is her restraint, specifically how she breaks the rules by waiting to turn the screws tighter. Soon after Iris arrives she falls short of discovering that Jack and Hannah had hooked up, and only then does she start confiding in Hannah that she’s in love with Jack. Now Hannah has come around to play along with Jack’s obsession, keeping their dalliance a secret from Iris. I could see the heads nodding in a script workshop if some dramatic structure fetishist were to say how much more impact Iris’ arrival would have if the viewer knew already that she was in love with Jack; it might even be advisable, the workshop might conclude, to add a fourth character in whom Iris confides before going to the island.

Shelton, however, throws the dice and figures we’ll be engaged enough by the boiler plate indie drama first act, before she raises the stakes higher so that we, like Hannah, start hoping Iris doesn’t find out. Then for a time that seems like it may not be enough.

The problem with secrets, in plots, is that there are only two obvious things to do with them: keep them, or reveal them. (I suppose blackmail and murder are additional possibilities, but we’re talking about the pinot noir set contemplating their love lives here, not a struggle between mafia dons.) Even our hopes for a romance to bud between Iris and Jack, the two sweetest, most vulnerable people in the story, isn’t enough to sustain a whole feature, and minutes 45-60, out of 90, begin dragging just a bit: “So what if she does find out?” Well, it gets a lot better in a hurry.

I’ll leave it to other bloggers to illuminate what it says about our generation of writers that when we put lesbians in major indie films they screw men. Partly I think independent films are made for a class of literate people whose most aggressive endeavors are sexual misbehavior. We don’t know what it means to assassinate rivals or to cut our illegitimate children out of our wills; the worst thing we do to each other, by and large, is seduce one another’s loved ones. Since the world of our dramas has become the integrated hetero-homo family or peer group, a lesbian crossing the line provides just enough surprise to confound easy expectations. Maybe in a few years we’ll see a spate of films about straight guys who go “gay for a day,” but till then lesbians are the final frontier.

Republicans, Cinema, and What Is Real

Republicans are watching their faxes arrive via webcam.

Under a headline “Parties Strategize for Dealing With Supreme Court Decision on Health Care” on the New York Times website right now, is this nugget: “The National Republican Congressional Campaign has mounted a petition drive for repeal [of the national health care law], complete with a function to allow signers to watch their faxed petitions arrive over the Internet.”

Leaving aside what this says about Republicans and their feelings about technology and trees, this says something about us and our feelings about cinema. Knowing nothing else about it – and what am I going to do? start clicking around on the Republicans’ website? I’m a screenwriter, God damn it. – knowing nothing else about it except what I know about the healthcare law, I predict that millions of people are going to love this!

On the face of it, the whole exercise makes zero sense. If you have the technology to watch a live video feed, then surely you can deliver a message to Congress in a more efficient and no less personalized way than a fax. It must be easier, and sounds a lot more entertaining, to make a digital simulation of a petition arriving, with a reproduction of each petitioner’s signature on it. But that’s not what we want.

We – and “we” are not just Republicans – want reality. It never occurred to me till this morning that it’s no coincidence that reality TV, the vulgar stepchild of cinema verité, matured at the very time when digital enhancement and outright fabrication of images became the norm. We can have a simulation of anything we want, but part of the pleasure of movies has always been capturing what’s real. Before films had narratives even, that’s what people enjoyed about them:

 

(That’s by the Lumiére Brothers, and they weren’t trying to make a history archive, that was an entrepreneurial film.)

There is not yet any satisfying substitute for a three-dimensional thing that is a manifestation of an idea or a position, except for a digital image if it’s  really spectacular, and then only some of the time. This is why gardening and cooking are so satisfying after a day spent manipulating tiny balls of light on a computer screen – and why I often think that sculptors are probably the happiest people on earth.

I face this in my own work when I am trying to write realistic characters, and their actions and reversals they face, when so much of the workforce around me is spending its day reading and typing. Crime and treachery are now committed via Paypal, or “Bump-ing” cell phones against one another, or intentionally forgetting to CC one’s rivals on emails. Complications are when the computer you’re borrowing hasn’t had its operating system updated, so you can’t open the file you need to work on, and your boss is asking where it is, via text message of course. In the real world, that can crush your dreams, but on screen it’s underwhelming.

Story-tellers are constantly thinking: How do we render this scene so that it’s not so boring? Do we keep the anachronism, like a suitcase full of ten dollar bills? (The Republican story-tellers are going for something like this with their healthcare petition.)

Or do we imagine some extra-digital complication? The coffee spilled on the keyboard, the muddy shoes on the boss’ carpet, or the car that got locked in a parking ramp while the digital conspiracy, boring and invisible, was playing out inside.

Watching “Moonrise Kingdom” Without Reading About It First

Reading the reviews of Moonrise Kingdom this morning, after seeing it last night based on just a thumbs-up from an editor friend, I was pleasantly surprised at how watching a Wes Anderson film is still so immediate and heartfelt an experience, even for the jaded wing of the critical establishment. When I saw that even the Village Voice liked it, I wondered, Why aren’t we sick of his preciousness by now? Hasn’t his aesthetic, straight off the expensive rack at the vintage store, become too cloying, and his obsessions about precocious castaways playing at being adults too predictable?

 

Apparently not! I stood up and marched in line with his Kakhi Scouts and find myself in lockstep with most of the critics. How does Anderson keep doing it?

 

For one, the screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is a “world of the story” Exhibit A for the textbooks. That’s the writers’ phrase for the parameters of reality, or what could happen inside the story. In most scripts it’s a simple matter of establishing a repertoire of what is commonplace, what’s possible, and what’s extraordinary in the fictional world you’re creating.

 

Helping a friend with a crime drama recently, I found myself insisting that we first figure out the “world of the story.” If the police came and searched my house today, it would be the worst day of the decade for me, and if we made a movie about that day, it would have to be about how I haven’t spoken to my old best friend the lawyer for over two years and owe him a call, and about some misunderstanding with my landlord that lead someone to call the cops on me. When they search Richard Widmark’s house, he tells them off with a cocky grin, then stops for a drink on his way to a crime scene: it’s part of life for him.

 

In Moonrise Kingdom, the breakfast reveille of the Kakhi Scouts quickly introduces the goofball habits and camping skills that will be the nuts and bolts of the story, but also establishes a texture of reality in the way people talk to one another. A director typically gets credit for this – and Anderson does deserve what kudos he gets for envisioning a way that people speak and keeping every performance inside the same vernacular – but this clearly started with the script. Lines like “Jiminy cricket! He’s flown the coop!” only make sense in a world of mid-20th Century innocence, already hinted at by minute 5 by the narrator, who set the semi-mythic time and place, and by the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which the heroine’s family was listening to as they started their first day without her.

 

It’s a superior film to Anderson and Coppola’s previous collaboration The Darjeeling Limited, whose plot was boiler plate indie drama, and whose Indian setting was purely incidental and added a socio-historical gravity that Anderson was not up to addressing. Anderson is a poet mid-century American culture, not least because he’s rewritten his ode again and again, and you can’t doubt his sincerity. It also helps – gotta say it! – that he has good taste, and that the well of kitsch he draws from is more rarified than most.

 

The easy way to tell Moonrise Kingdom would be to position the tragic, illicit couple against the arrayed forces of church, family, and state, and to use Americana to color it with ironic counterpoint. Hymns, portraits of Eisenhower, cheerleading uniforms, and students pledging allegiance are the stuff of cheap laughs in American cinema. As long as a film includes a dose of what was rad back in 1965, rock and roll or whatever, it’s open season on the hypocrisy of illegitimate middle class authority. When Anderson and Coppola’s narrator evokes the classroom documentaries of the 1960s, or when the young lovers meet backstage at a church pageant, it’s not to say “Look at the impossible places love blooms, in this desert of corny, phony American culture.” It’s to say “Bravo! A couple that lives up to our ideals.”

 

“Bravo!” is right.

Sample Beat Sheet: The Graduate

Below is a sample beat sheet for The Graduate.

Like many writers I sometimes stuff too many words into whatever story I’m telling. Details distract us from the main point of our stories, but beat sheets force us to dump those insightful and adorable minutiae overboard, and to focus on the important matter at hand: where is the ship going next. Still, you’ll notice that I can’t help inserting what I feel are the especially delicious details.

Brief commentary follows the beat sheet.

Charlie

“THE GRADUATE” (screenplay by Buck Henry based on a Charles Webb novel.)

Ben arrives in L.A. at the airport. (the song)

His parents persuade him to join the adult party. Ben wants things to be different.

Ben gets lots of superficial adoration and flees to his room.

Mrs. Robinson comes to his room, and asks for a ride home. (tosses his car keys in his fish tank)

He obliges, gives her a ride home.

She coerces him to come inside and stay for a drink. (“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”)

(lures him upstairs, to see Elaine’s portrait) She flirts and toys with him some more.

As she undresses she lures him back upstairs to bring her purse, and offers herself any time.

Mr. Robinson returns (“Scotch?” “Bourbon”: Now he has a preference.) and advises him to “have a good time with the girls and so forth.” Mrs. R comes downstairs and agrees.

Ben’s 21st birthday. With great fanfare, his father humiliates him by introducing him…in a scuba suit.  (Dad pushes his head under water.)

Ben calls her from the Taft Hotel and nervously waits. (Holds the door for a parade of old people. Now he is smoking.)

He reserves a room, bumbling.

He phones her from across the lobby.

He tries backing out but she challenges him, asking if it’s his first time and suggesting he’s “inadequate.”  He goes for it.

(“The Sound of Silence”/ “April, Come She Will”) A sequence shows how Ben has a lazy month or so of swimming and getting it on with Mrs. Robinson.

His father delivers a “get off your ass” speech, and the Robinsons come. Mr. Robinson approves of his hedonism, and encourages him to ask his daughter Elaine out.

His mother asks him what he does at night. He refuses to say.

Next time Ben and Mrs. Robinson meet, he insists on a conversation. She reveals that she’d gotten married because she was pregnant. She makes him promise never to take Elaine out.  (He misreads her completely, interpreting her position as a disrespect to him, oblivious to how devastated Mrs. Robinson is.)*

His parents encourage him to take Elaine out, his mother threatening to invite all the Robinson’s over.

Ben takes Elaine out. Mrs. Robinson is not pleased. He acts like a jackass and takes Elaine to a strip joint. (“You’re missing a great effect here.”)

He turns the date around. He kisses her, and levels with her, to a point. They talk at a burger drive-in. (“It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people.”)

They go to the Taft Hotel, where all the staff know him, embarrassing him.

Elaine asks if he’s having an affair, and he admits he’s seeing a married woman, but affirms that it is completely over. (Now he has told her everything, except who in particular it is.)

He goes to pick up Elaine the next day, in the rain, and Mrs. Robinson forbids him from seeing her, threatening to expose the affair in order to keep him away from her, and she in effect follows through. Elaine tosses him out. (Perfectly executed scene.)

“Scarborough Fair” sequence: After watching the Robinson’s from afar, Ben vows to find Elaine in Berkeley and persuade her to marry him. (“It’s completely baked. It’s a decision I’ve made.”)He slowly pursues her and approaches Elaine on a city bus. She’s en route to meet a guy at the zoo. (ends at the monkey house – missed opp)

Elaine visits his boarding house. He wins her over, but appears to get himself kicked out of the house. She makes him promise that he won’t leave Berkeley till he has a definite plan.

She comes back that night. He asks her to marry him, and she contemplates it. He badgers her, levels with her in a profound way.

Mr. Robinson comes to tell Ben that he’s divorcing, and warns Ben to stay away from his daughter too. An ominous note from Elaine tells him that she’s done with him.

He goes back to L.A. and breaks into the Robinson’s house. Gets sent away by Mrs. Robinson, who says that Elaine will be marrying her other guy.

Back in Berkeley, he looks for her other guy, and gets hints that Elaine is pregnant (“probably one step ahead of the shotgun.”). He finds out their wedding is far away in Santa Barbara.

He hurries there, and wins Elaine over just after she’s gotten married. They run away together. (Their faces, especially hers, show sadness and uncertainty.)

THE END

ANALYSIS:

Ha! Whose bright idea was it make this the first film analyzed in any detail, a classic that breaks lots of the rules this blog is supposedly extolling? As it recedes in memory, its critical esteem has waned, mostly because, as Roger Ebert points out, Benjamin is a mute protagonist without a clear goal. I hold The Graduate accountable for the long pedigree of lifeless young male protagonists that make independent films boring.

The first thing most people remember about it is the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, which really is just three songs, but they’re used to pave over gaping potholes in the narrative road. Act One and most of Act Two are a spectacularly tight series of scenes, and the only instance when time jumps, when “Sounds of Silence” covers the early weeks of Ben’s affair, works just fine since, up to then, almost everything has happened over the course of two evenings, and the viewer is ready for a break.

The first half of the film is also enriched by a gorgeous and consistent use of basic elemental images. In the first shot of Benjamin in his own environment, his bedroom, he is framed by a fishtank, and every time he hides, he hides in water. Mrs. Robinson is the sun, her naked body scarred by razor-sharp tan lines. The first time she insists on Benjamin escorting her into her house, she instructs him to walk through it and “to the sun porch.” Throughout the affair, Benjamin basks in the sun (resting himself for another night with Mrs. R), and he keeps up the charade until his father comes to lay down the law:

“Look, I think it’s a very good thing that a young man, after he’s done some very good work, should have a chance to relax and enjoy himself and lie around and drink beer and so on, but after a few weeks I believe that person would want to take some stock in himself and his situation, and start to think about getting off his ass!” he says, his Apollonian message delivered, as he shifts from one foot to the other, with the sun shining directly behind his head. He has in effect, taken the sun back from Mrs. Robinson, as his parents and Mr. Robinson have just found something new to nag Ben about, taking Elaine out on a date. After he complies, and with some bumps manages to enjoy his time with Elaine, his promising second date with her is about to take place during, what else, a downpour of rain, and the climax comes.

The second musical sequence, “Scarborough Fair,” is an attempt to make up for lost time, and the first part of it, including clichés such as writing “Dear Elaine” over and over, is the worst in the film. With all that alluring, mature sexuality of Mrs. Robinson shining on the first half, the storytellers didn’t spend enough time establishing that Elaine Robinson is desirable. So suddenly the movie goes to the “tra la la” zone – pretty girl in a short dress, Berkeley in ’67, tra la la – and it seems like the opening credits to a different film. Its famous cliffhanger ending notwithstanding, not to mention the sublime Norman Fell, who can do no wrong, the rest of the film is never enough to move you like the first two acts did.

The Beat Sheet

A “beat sheet” breaks a 90-120 minute story down into 25 to 40 “beats,” or basic story steps. It gives you a bird’s eye perspective and helps you visualize the economy of the screenplay, what the story needs more or less of. Blake Snyder’s Hollywood screenwriting how-to book Save the Cat is one of many attempts at codifying what things have to happen during particular beats, but I’ll save that topic for a future post.

A few working screenwriters have told me that before they sold a single script they wrote dozens of “beat sheets” for other films, especially films that they thought were successes in the genre they were breaking into. It’s like learning to play a bunch of other songwriters’ songs before you can expect to write a good one yourself. (One guy even told me he’d done hundreds of them, but I suspect he was exaggerating.) It’s an exercise that, like stretching, is actually a pleasure once you’ve set aside time to do it. If watching your favorite films with a laptop or a pen and paper in front of you sounds like a big drag to you, then you probably shouldn’t be a screenwriter.

In the next post, I have a sample beat sheet I recently wrote for The Graduate, the classic film written by Buck Henry based on a Charles Webb novel. The first time through it in many years, I was sitting in the dark at Film Forum, and I spontaneously started recording its beats. Page One is below.

Charlie