How to write a great film script by understanding genre

Most screenwriting how-to books, I find, are more or less the same, and I try to use their methods on a “whatever works” basis. Most intermediate level writers – who’ve demonstrated some general capability but are still finding that killer script elusive – really need some deeper insights into genre, not another lesson in a new way to slice the screenwriting onion. For more work on genre, I highly recommend the Creative Essentials series from Kamera Books:

For general lessons, I may never read another how-to book again, since happening upon my fellow blogger Craig Lumen.

Ellington in Brooklyn

Ask and ye shall receive.

Last month I was listening to the LP Ellington Indigos – No, let’s go back to American Hustle  – NO! Let’s start in December, when I was working as producer on A Man Full of Days. I met Steve Holtje, who’s composing the score for it. Steve is also manager and publicist at the legendary avant-garde jazz label ESP-Disk. Just for fun he deejays on the last Monday each month at Flatbush Farm in Brooklyn; for a guy who can talk at length about Ornette Coleman and Erik Satie, he knows when it’s time to just spin some Prince or Kinks and let it rock.

Weeks later I saw American Hustle, and let’s just say Christian Bale’s character hit a little close to home for me. Not the combover, but the way he effused about Duke Ellington – “Who starts a song like that?!” – is something I might say on any given night. A few months after that, while listening to Ellington Indigos, I lifted the needle to repeat “Autumn Leaves” a few times, loving Ray Nance’s violin over and over again.

An enthusiasm for Ellington soloists doesn’t have the aphrodisiac effect it has in the movies, let me tell you. It’s more of a solitary experience, and I had one of those “There are two and a half million people in Brooklyn, I can’t be the only one reading Ray Nance’s Wikipedia page” moments. “Who else is?”


The only person I could think of who might be was Steve Holtje. I emailed him suggesting a night of Ellingtonia, with sets that feature his various soloists, starting with Nance. He wrote back a week later: “Monday April 28 is one day before Duke’s birthday. Your wish will be granted.” So you know where I’ll be Monday night 6 to 8 pm, 78 St.Mark’s Place.

Remember, it’s Duke’s birthday, not Nance’s. Ray “Floorshow” Nance was born in Chicago on December 10, 1913. That means the snowy day I drove upstate to work on A Man Full of Days, and met Holtje…was Nance’s 100th birthday.

POSTCRIPT:  LOTS going on in screenwriting. Updates coming soon.

Mad Men and The Young Girls of Rochefort

Let’s all have a late ’60s spring! It’s all around us, with Mad Men back for its final season on Sunday, and, in my neighborhood, The Young Girls of Rochefort coming to BAM for a whole week starting tonight.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), written and directed by Jacques Demy, is so corny I can’t believe how much I love it. It has none of the tragedy of Umbrellas of Cherbourg nor the twisted fairy tale horror of Donkey Skin, which is still my favorite of his films with composer Michel Legrand. But it is unquestionably something that must be seen in a cinema. It has dance numbers and huge, colorful sets, Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorléac, George Chakiris (better known as Nardo from West Side Story), and Gene Kelly as The American.

An ad for the final season.

An ad for the final season.

When you think of late ’60s music you think of the Jefferson Airplane or Motown or the “White Album,” but I can’t get enough of what “the squares” were doing at the time. Bachrach, Bert Kempfert, Morton Gould and His Orchestra, The Living Strings, Sinatra singing Joni Mitchell, Engelbert singing just about anything: the encounter between old show biz and the new counterculture. Legrand and Demy made a few great films out of it.

Apparently Matthew Weiner digs it too. You could see from the very first episodes of Mad Men, in the number of beatniks Don Draper kept coming across, that sooner or later he would employ one and co-opt his sensibility – and he has – and that a day of reckoning was looming for the ad guys, a full-on collision between the antiwar, anti-establishment movement and the corporate asses they make a swank living by kissing. That’s what I predict this season. I just hope we see Sal return for a triumphant out-of-the-closet moment, and that it’s tasteful.

Françoise Dorléac in 1967.

Françoise Dorléac in 1967.

As for Françoise Dorléac, she died the year Young Girls of Rochefort came out, allegedly while speeding to catch a plane at the Nice airport. If you think Gene Kelly’s too old for her, well, in one of her other films she was paired with David Niven, who was born older than middle-aged Gene Kelly. I can’t wait to see her on the big screen this week.


Folk Art

Americana is in the air in my house this week. I brought home a print of the American 19th Century classic Peaceable Kingdom for the occasion of my wife’s birthday – we both love animals – and finally watched Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (screenplay by Bob Nelson).

Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom."

Edward Hicks’ “Peaceable Kingdom.”

Edward Hicks was a Quaker from Langhorne, PA not far from my hometown of Trenton. A true folk artist, he was a decorative painter and sign painter, who actually made 60 versions of the same composition, Peaceable Kingdom, that made him a star among Quakers.

While looking around for a deal to get it framed, I peruse the internet and come across all the snarky things people are saying about George W. Bush putting up some of his original, folksy portraits in his own presidential library. All I can do is quote another Texan, the poet Dean Young: “POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!”

Salon. Huffpost. The Guardian. Don’t care.

I was honestly a lot angrier after watching Nebraska. I don’t mind languid pacing. I like black and white. I like simple landscapes being so omnipresent. I really like foul-mouthed grandmothers. And I positively love scenes in which facial expressions stand in for dialogue.

What I couldn’t abide by in Nebraska was the baldness with which every character stated their intentions so directly. It felt like I was reading an early draft of a story in which the writer leaves subtextual lines in place with the intent of going back later and burying them under more ephemeral dialogue. As if the simplicity of the story and the bleakness of the overall aesthetic justified the utter lack of any sophistication – in the literal sense, with a bit of sophistry. In my years in the Midwest I found small town people were more than capable of this; you could say they were masters of it!

If I were in Fort Worth and had a choice between watching Nebraska and seeing W’s paintings, I’d go with the folk artist not the Folk Artist.

The Dalai Lama, by George W. Bush.

The Dalai Lama, by George W. Bush.