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Want to hear the voice of Chicago?
Here’s the greatest scene you’ve never seen in a movie, because it isn’t from a screenplay at all.
It’s a call from the current resident of Littleton, Colorado Federal Minimum Security prison and former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. On the other end is former Barack Obama Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel. Talk about ships that pass in the night!
Enjoy this RAHM-ROD DIALOGUE and savor all that is Chicago!
This is not fiction. This is a 100% REAL LIFE conversation, secretly taped, the transcript of which was played at the Blagojevich trial.
This conversation is already part of public lore. Here’s an animated version of this conversation:
Look at the dynamic of this conversation and marvel, Good Reader. Here you will find a lesson in how to write any scene in any genre of any screenplay.
I’m not talking about the Mamet f-bombs that rain down– though it might be some kind of record, even for Chicago politicos.
No, I’m talking about the power dynamic here. I’m talking about beats and who owns them.
Two characters, both of whom want something very badly. The scene itself is warfare, both characters attempting to manipulate and control the other for their own gain.
In any scene that you draw, you should do several things. 1-The scene exists because it must. It advances character or plot. You know ahead of time what the scene is there for, what it must accomplish. Get into the scene late, accomplish what you have to accomplish, and get out.
The best way to accomplish what the scene must is to understand character motivation. What exactly do the characters want at this moment in the story? What do they want from each other? What will they do to get there?
A beat, by definition, is the smallest actable moment. Every scene has beats. If the scene has two or more characters you need to figure out who owns the beat. Every scene, at its essence, is one character attempting to impose their will on the other…to control, manipulate, or dominate the other. Sometimes this is done with subtlety; sometimes it’s done with a silver Thor hammer. Other times it’s done with Chicago-style politics and Mametesque f-bombs.
What do the characters want in this scene?
Here, Rod calls Rahm. Rod wants to get paid. Rahm takes the call out of professional courtesy. Rahm, at the start, does not control the beat. Rod wants to get paid and pushes the notion of selling a Senate seat. From that point the beat shifts. Rahm now wants something too…he wants off the phone. He wants distance between himself and Rod. Rod doesn’t much care, pushing Rahm’s buttons. Rahm pushes back hard, the f-bombs start to drop. This is two Type A bull rams bashing each other. Who owns the beat in the end? Hard to say, both are attempting to control things, though Rahm might get the decision, ignoring Rod’s threats and hanging up the phone with the classic “Have a great life, Fatso!”
When you write your scripts remember that each scene must accomplish what it was intended to accomplish. Get in late, get out early, and do what you need to do. Within the context of the scene there are characters each of which needs or wants something. It is the battle for beat ownership that supplies any movie with much of its tension or comedy or horror.
A simple but important lesson brought to you by the best in the business of politics—Chicago style!
We have met the enemy, and we are them.
Don’t ever categorize people–it’s a no-win landscape of ignorance. Orson Wells in Lady From Shanghai said, “it’s a bright, guilty world.”– I hear that as I type on in this perpetual 4 degree Chicago February. My stance on screenwriting consultants has been a tough one to rationalize since day one at Script Gods Must Die. I assure you I meant to put no whammy on Syd Field’s head. But, if not Syd, who are the Script Gods I wanted crushed out?
They are the gurus. The pompous, all-knowing self-anointed experts with fabulous websites and zero IMDB cred. They are Hollywood finochios with a gift of gab or pen who can manipulate the neophyte and newbie screenwriter for their own financial gain. They who promise mucho, and deliver zero.
Script Magazine seemed to be the place where they hung out. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum– your Humble Narrator started working there. Here’s what I saw: Sure, some overplay their hands, in it for the almighty $$$. But the revelation is this… once I actually took the time to READ the articles and blog posts that have been accumulated by my editor, Jeanne Bowerman–I saw that a lot of her 60+ contributors are teachers like myself. They actually care. Several are flat-out far better writers than I’ll ever be. Sure, there are ruthless self-promoters, but that one-size-fits-all crap had to go.
Not all screenwriting consultants are scumbags. Imagine the notion!
The folks at Script Magazine don’t need this plug. They’ve got 60 or 70K monthly visitors to their website. You, Good Reader, and the rest of my noble band here at Script Gods, number considerably less. Still, I want to direct you toward some of the excellence that is to be found at Script Magazine.
So today we’ll start a new series based on writings there. Maybe something will resonate for you. Vamos!
Seriously? You got Guillermo Arriaga to write an epic piece about how he wrote 21 Grams? That’s a COUP, capital everything. This, the same guy who wrote Amores Perros and Babel, two other favs of mine. This guy not only strikes savage emotional chords, he also produces some of the most intricate non-linear structure you’ll ever see.
Here’s a taste: “The next step was to build the structure carefully, trying to have large narrative ellipses, but with an emotional continuum. So, in order to achieve that, I needed to create a balance within the scenes, a kind of narrative yin yang. I combined passive scenes with active ones; scenes that posed questions with scenes that answered them. Sometimes in one scene I presented the facts in a certain way, and then, in another scene, I changed those facts completely. I was looking for a way to make the audience be much more participative—to have a constant dialogue with the film, to create and recreate the story. There were themes that could improve this involvement: love, death, life, hate, revenge, forgiveness. So I tried to use scenes with contrasting emotional themes; for example, scenes of love and then scenes of revenge.”
This is the carpenter you want to study when building your own house. Take the time, check it out.
Here’s another guy with an IMDB profile–to the tune of three major Studio released movies (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, Hostage). Sure, I’d take Arriaga’s poetry over Richardson’s thriller explosions, Die Hard 2 ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s more than solid for the genre, even inspired. I like the guy’s voice. He’s been in the room. And he makes me laugh, like in this article, where he gives us the “behind the lines” POV on how agents and movie executives actually read scripts:
“How do you get through all those scripts in just a coupla days?” I innocently asked a development pal, whose backpack was so weighed down with his weekend reading that I worried it would permanently injure his already out-of-kilter back.
“Easy. Read the first ten pages,” said an agent friend. “Then the last five. If those are any good, I’ll double back and maybe read the whole thing. Otherwise, I know it’s crap.”
A valuable look from a guy who was on the inside of the biz- right here.
For those of us without agents or managers, looking for a way INTO the room, we might be looking into shooting a web series. I’ll be posting on the web series Devolve that we wrapped production on in late January shortly. Meanwhile, this excellent article by Rebecca Norris recently appeared on Script Mag. It’s an interview with the creative team behind the web series Snobby Robot, and details their specific plan for drumming up press and subscribers in the crowded web series landscape.
“One of the biggest hurdles creators face is creating legitimacy, it’s all those little things fully professional productions have to convince people to watch. So many of us started out with the assumption that if we make it people will watch, but the truth is, getting people to watch is a lot harder than making the content in the first place.
Snobby Robot’s goal is to help creators to understand the need for creating a marketing plan and the steps they can to take to promote a professional outward facing image, all while doing the best we can to help in that process.” The full article is here.
Lastly, a shout-out to my editor Jeanne Bowerman, who writes her own column Balls Of Steel as well as playing Mother Hen for 60-some odd contributors. A mighty burden! One wonders how she has time to write anything herself but she’s doing just fine these days. Her script for Slavery By Another Name making Tracking Board’s Launch Pad Top 25. Her article on Script Mag about Overcoming Overthought is something I’ve considered for quite awhile, reminding me of a post or two of my own.
SPOILERS! Good Reader, if you haven’t seen the movie Birdman, you might want to pass this week’s entry. We’ll be checking out the script for Birdman, which you can find here. My over/under on Oscar wins for this movie is 5 including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Original Script, so yeah, I dug it. Inarritu and his three co-writers brought the poetry and a not-so simple elegance. If only it could be bottled, that knack for laying down something so thematically complex on the page in a manner that appears fluid and simple. Maybe looking at the script will furnish clues. Here’s how it opens on the page…
Read the rest of this entry »
With the Oscars about 10 days off, time for a quick rundown. I shall turn my gaze to each Oscar category and give you one ex-craps dealer’s prognostication on who will win. Good Reader, no wagering or Vegas odds offered here!
No contest. I thought this would be closer. All the nominees have virtues, passion, maybe even the poetry. So why Birdman? Because it defies analysis. (*SPOILERS!) In the end it doesn’t matter if the guy actually has powers. Yeah, the gun at the end seems like it comes out of nowhere, but it’s actually grounded firmly in the dialogue of the play, the same scene they read over and over. The structure builds suspense inevitably. I was watching for 10 minutes before I realized there hadn’t been a cutaway. This continuous shot (or the appearance of a continuous shot–he apparently did do extremely long takes but broke off seamlessly, for instance with a tilt up to the sky and fade to morning) was the most seamless I’ve seen since the one-take, 99 minute Russian Ark. If you want to see how the hell they did it, look here. Keaton’s astonishing performance. Not a wasted supporting role. Loved Inarritu since Amores Perros. Don’t know if it’s a movie I’ll go back to twenty times like Goodfellas or The Godfather but it stayed with me for days after viewing. The movie soars.
Keaton, barely. Eddie Redmayne’s transformation is unreal in The Theory Of Everything. (*SPOILERS) I had no clue he divorced his wife. And after all she did for him! Talk about pouring some dark side into a trans-formative character. Or that he could still…you know…do it. How do you pass up on Bradley Cooper in American Sniper? He’s another actor who physically transformed for the role (gaining 40 pounds and really looking like the real dude). Liked him here way better than in Silver Linings Playbook. And the politics of the flick didn’t bug me either. Again, Birdman was just that good. And Keaton…role of his life.
Don’t bet on this, but I’m taking Felicity Jones. Before we buy the ticket we already know the Steven Hawking story. We expect that transformation. What we don’t know is his wife’s story. Being harsh, one could call the movie by the numbers. Straight linear storytelling with few surprises. The noble suffering wife role might seem superficial, and might have been if not for Jones’ performance. She could be a candidate for sainthood as her character bears the weight of Hawking’s illness on her day to day life. (*SPOILERS!) The scene where Hawking breaks up with her is a masterpiece of subtext- Does she say more than one line? And after a lifetime of suffering with him? That prick! The end scene is an elegant statement to their love. I’ll root for her, though Julianne Moore will probably win it.
p.s.: Yeah, I walked out on Wild. Somebody, please, tell me what that movie was about. Laura Dern takes the hard knocks here. Bringing the wrong butane fluid is not suffering!
Can’t go against J.K. Simmons here. As a teacher myself I’m always wondering how far to push a student–Though tossing a symbol at someone’s head in today’s world would trend on Twitter and raise a social media firestorm long before you’d be fired. That’s why we go to the movies– because people on the screen are doing shit we can’t. Truth be told, if it was just my vote, Mark Ruffalo would win it. Loved the performances in Foxcatcher, but the movie itself, not so much.
12 years in the making. That’s the tagline–how they’re selling the movie. They can’t sell the story because there’s not that much to it. One mother’s coming of age tale as she disentangles from a pair of loser husbands, protecting her two kids and finding herself along life’s path. What makes this film obviously unique is it was shot over 12 years. We see the child actors grow up. We see Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke physically change. We’ve never seen that and director Linklater has made me say that before with Slacker and A Scanner Darkly. I liked both those movie better, and Bernie too. This is a brave performance and though I might personally pick Emma Stone, Arquette will win it.
Didn’t see any of them. Shit, gotta get out more. Damn February Chicago slush puddles.
Didn’t see a couple of these movies either, but I’m giving it to the utterly seamless Birdman. The POV he gets with those endless tracking shots puts us right into Keaton’s head. Beautiful and frenzied.
True story: My mother lives in the same New York city apartment building as Wes Anderson. When he moved in the movers had his beautiful ceramic hot tub laid up on its side in the elevator. As they split back to their truck I shifted up against the ceramic surface and before I knew it, I was laying in Wes Anderson’s hot tub. Who says Peditto hasn’t brushed up against greatness!
Wes, I freaking loved Grand Budapest. It has poetry my brother, but not the essential, kill me poetry of Birdman. A victory for Inarritu here.
Protest vote. Saw Life Itself a couple nights ago and it killed me. HOW WAS THIS NOT NOMINATED??? Three question marks, bold and italicized–I must be angry. James’ best film since Hoop Dreams. Ebert’s face at the end was a mask you could barely look upon, but there he was, fighting to walk a simple staircase, blogging to 880,00 people, full of joy at, yes, life itself.
This is a screenwriting blog, so now for the big awards…
Tough call. Did anyone else think Inherent Vice was ridiculously overrated? Trippy scenes, but what a mess. Whiplash will be honored when Simmons wins. Theory Of Everything and Imitation Game are strong but almost too by-the-numbers. Which leaves American Sniper– I think this one gets snubbed elsewhere, but gets honored here.
Nightcrawlers got screwed too. That character ain’t Travis Bickle, as so many contend, but he’s spooky beyond belief. A great statement on the 24/7 news monster and those who feed it. That said, I’m going back to the well and calling for a Birdman win.
I’m a card-counter and ex-craps dealer, but I’m also frequently wrong. Good Reader, be advised!
Good Reader, WTF! Five years? Where’d that go? Looks like I missed the Anniversary. December 9, 2009 was the first post here at Script Gods. Here’s a piece of it:
“You’ve written a script (or 10) and sent it (them) out to varying degrees of success. No breakthroughs, but there’s been “movement.” Or maybe you’ve had zero movement, and you’re pissed off. Any of the following scenarios sound familiar?
Can I tell you: The agent did respond.
Hollywood rejection sounds like this:
Silent. Economical. Perfect.
You keep waiting for news, hoping something will break. What the hell else are you gonna do? And this is the $64,000 question: What can you do about it?
How about controlling what you can control?
How about being proactive?
How about not waiting for the phone to ring?
How about making something happen.
But how? You’ve read all the books and blogs; you took classes and seminars; you went to the cattle-calls at Pitchfest, even shelled out $300 for Screenwriting Expo 5…
Consider today’s thought from the sales department:
A customer will do what they do, until the pain of doing it becomes unbearable.
Or this thought, from The Sage:
Lessons are taught until they are learned.
There is an angle, something you haven’t thought about yet. There is a way. When they told you at Pitchfest nobody is looking to buy your character-driven, deeply personal drama inspired from your very own Grampie and his days as a catfish noodler– what did you do? Did you crumble? Did you even finish the script? Welcome to Darwinism, Hollywood-style.
The Pitchfest finochio goes back to his gig at Smores, Buttcheek and Jones… and you? You toss in. You give up. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Writing is a pain in the ass. Not to mention the chances of your script turning into Slumdog Millionaire, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine are about as likely as you winning the Illinois Powerball Jackpot.
Object Lesson #1: If I can get my movie made, you can make yours.
That is my message to you, Good Reader.
You might be the genius in the crowd. You might not. Let’s find out. Read Script Gods Must Die. There will be learning here. Vamos!”
It’s been a good run.
Here’s what to look for in Year 6 at SGMD:
So, stay tuned. This has been a no bullshit zone for five years, and will again…
Let me leave you with these 24 Life Lessons from Werner Herzog. Nothing more needs to be said.
Go and do likewise, Good Reader!